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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN String Quartets (1779 - 1827)
Borodin String Quartet.
Recorded Forde Abbey, Somerset. June/July 1988 (Op 18/4) St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay. Feb 1989 Virgin Classics 7243 5 61748 2 5

CD1 51.46

String Quartet No 4 in C Minor. Op. 18 No 4 24.41
String Quartet No 5 in A Major. Op 18 No 5 27.02

CD2 56.15

String Quartet No 13 in B Flat Major. Op. 130 40.07
Including Grosse Fugue Op. 133 15.47

There can be few more satisfying musical combinations than the compact disc and Chamber Music. Nothing can be easier - put the disc in the tray, settle back, press a button and off you go. If your player is set right and the recording engineers have done their job correctly then it should be fine. There's none of the bane of home listening - a huge dynamic recording range - which can be such a problem in bigger works for those of us who do not live in baronial halls. And when it's Beethoven, well..........

The material on this new Virgin double CD with the Borodin Quartet in all Beethoven disc has all been released previously. In their new incarnation the recordings give listeners who may be fresh to the beauties and challenges of Beethoven Quartets a safe, if uneventful introduction. More experienced listeners may well prefer to look elsewhere.

The first CD - 51' 46" only, please note - gives us two of the six Opus 18 quartets, Beethoven's first ventures into the form published in 1801 after some extensive revisions. The C Minor ( No 4) opens with a brooding, dark hued Allegro which confirms that the group produces a beautiful, well matched sound with impeccable intonation. The second movement scherzo was too po faced and much of the wit was missing. The minuet and trio with its quicker reprise leads into the cat's-cradle of a high-speed finale. Throughout the four movements one was always aware of clarity of the inner parts and the poise and elegance of the playing which never quite got under the composer's skin.

The A Major Quartet ( Op. 18, No 5) is generally regarded as being inspired by Mozart's Quartet in the same key, K464. They have much in common, even to the use of variations in the slow movement. The work is a delight. Its cheerful, opening allegro gained from a freer use of rubato than earlier, while the minuet (unusually placed second), was notable for the clarity of the four lines. I found the andante and the succeeding five variations lacking the nuances which finally convince. The closing allegro with its four note motif showed magnificent technique rather than memorable interpretation.

The B Flat Major Quartet (Op. 130) was originally performed with what became the Grosse Fugue ( Op. 133) as its final movement, later to be changed to its present layout with a new Finale. Virgin have chosen to place the Op. 133 as track 6 on a 7 track side - the true Finale follows - so the listener needs to programme the disc with care. Using modern technology one can reproduce the original layout and can see why the 1826 audience was bemused.

The opening Adagio-Allegro, longer than the next three movements combined in this unusually constructed work, again showed what civilised music making the Russians provide. The brief Presto showed that speed and attack are not the same thing, and the following Andante missed some of the intended humour. A Landler like Danza tedesca was gently rhythmical. Beethoven himself was reputedly driven to tears by the emotional strength of his own writing in the aria like Cavatina, here played thoughtfully without pulling the heart strings, while the finale failed to catch fire.

The single movement Grosse Fugue still sounds modern to today's ears, nearly two centuries after it was written. The early angular theme tests intonation and technique, handled inevitably with apparent ease, and the recording clarity helps the ears trying to follow this most challenging of pieces.

At this point I decided that it was time for comparisons. My yardstick for the Beethoven Quartets is the set by the Quartetto Italiano on Philips. Just dipping into the equivalent works showed what was missing. In technique at this level of musicianship one would not expect there to be any differences. The Italians simply feel livelier and more alert with more inner vitality and less 'smoothing out' of the inner parts. Speed alone is not an issue. In some cases the Italians were considerably slower (e.g. in 18 / 5 Third Movement, 10.55 against the Russian timing of 8.45. Quite a remarkable contrast). The difference is in the depth of reading and approach. One feels that the Borodin's main aim is beauty of sound, whereas the Italian Quartet wants to get inside the Beethoven score.


Harry Downey



Harry Downey

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