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BEETHOVEN Ludwig van

6 String Quartets, op.18
String Quartet in F, op.14
String Quintet in C, op. 29*

The Lindsays, with Louise Williams*
ASV CD DCA 1111-3 [3 CDs, only available separately, 76' 24", 66' 07", 58' 08"]

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By mid-January 2000, when most people were still getting over their millennium hangover, the Lindsays were hard at work on a new Beethoven cycle. With a warm but clear recording made in Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth and very full notes (translated into French and German) by Richard Wigmore the set has a head's start, and the performances do not disappoint.

When a team has been playing together for some 35 years the risks, especially in repertoire which has always been central to them, are two. On the one hand, over-familiarity may stale their approach, while, on the other, they may be tempted to find "new" solutions, just to do it differently from before. The former risk can be discounted with such enquiring artists as these; the only trace I found of the latter comes in their rather stuttering start to the allegretto sections of the finale of no.6. The music sidles in slowly, accelerates wildly and then drops back to what is going to be its real tempo. Apart from this they are extremely faithful to the letter of the score (and very generous with repeats).

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What I do find is that, perhaps as a result of long knowledge of these works, they seem to want to plead a special case for the "lesser" pieces. There is an attractive reticence about their accounts of the "big" nos.1 and 4 (without any lack of vitality), but they are positively waspish with no. 2 and extremely brilliant with no. 3. They certainly emphasise the originality and scale of these apparently unassuming quartets but a few of their tempi seem to me just a fraction fast. The tarantella-like finale of no.3 comes close to losing its poise at times and I was uncomfortable with the second movement of no.4. Their tempo here is in fact (intentionally?) pretty close to Beethoven's metronome mark but since they recognise that the markings in the other movements need modification (that of the finale is one of Beethoven's most manic), surely this one too, even if it is physically possible, must be assumed to be wrong in about the same proportions?

I compared parts of all movements with the recordings by the Amadeus Quartet. The sometimes schmaltzy quality of the Amadeus's playing of the late quartets has got their Beethoven a bad name, but the were very fine interpreters indeed of the op.18s. Overall they seem to find just a little more time to express the music, and bring out a grace and a graciousness which is not out of place in these early works. Interestingly, in no.5, the most "Mozartian" of the group, the Lindsays produce precisely those same qualities of grace and graciousness as the Amadeus, so it would also be possible to argue that they have a wider range of expression, varying their approach to the work in hand. I do very much love the Amadeus's relaxed, Schubertian way with the opening movement of no. 6, but maybe in time I shall come to accept that the Lindsays' energetic forward drive is more suitable to early Beethoven.

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What is in no doubt is that I shall be coming back to these performances often for, in spite of the odd query, they are a very fine achievement and I want to emphasise that, even when a tempo seems a mite too fast, they never become aggressive. And the discs gather up some extra material which most quartet cycles omit. Pianists who have never heard Beethoven's transcription of his op.14/1 Piano Sonata should lose no time in doing so, for they have a fascinating experience in store. Much of the music lends itself to the string quartet perfectly well and Beethoven need only make a straightforward transcription such as anyone could have done. But his solutions to those passages which are clearly unsuited to strings are fascinating and, in the central episode of the finale, quite breathtaking. He retains his harmonic scheme but otherwise recomposes the music entirely.

More important still is the inclusion of the op.29 Quintet. This extremely fine work - Richard Wigmore describes it as "the crown of op.18" - is little-known yet it provides the link between op.18 and the mould-breaking op.59 set. The Lindsays relish its rich sonorities and in the first movement provide not only energy but also a glorious singing quality which bodes well for their recording of the similar movement of op.59 no.1 which will, I hope, not be tardy in arriving. On with the next!

Christopher Howell

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