> BEETHOVEN Middle Quartets Juillard [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
The Middle String Quartets

Quartet Op 59 No 1 (1805-06)
Quartet Op 59 No 2 (1805-06)
Quartet Op 59 No 3 (1805-06)
Quartet Op 74 (1809)
Quartet Op 95 (1810)
Juilliard String Quartet
Recorded live [1983?]
SONY CLASSICAL SB3K89896 [3 CDs 165.42]

Budget price


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It’s necessary to note, once again, that Sony Essential Classics dispense with the minority interest of location and date of recording. It may not worry prospective purchasers that this handy triple album box was recorded nearly twenty years ago and in front of a live audience – at least I presume this is a repackaging of that 1983 live traversal of the Middle Quartets – but it might have been nice of Sony to have given them the opportunity to detect these essential facts from the packaging. Or – perish the thought – could it be that Sony think these things might put people off?

The Juilliard Quartet took over a period of being the house quartet – artists-in-residence – at The Library of Congress in 1962, an honour passed on by the Budapest Quartet who had been there in the same capacity since 1940. Over twenty years later the Juilliard had lost little of their emblematic intelligence and tonal balance. The Middle period quartets are more than recommendable and if not uniformly successful they are always beautifully phrased without either exaggeration or ostentation. There is clarity but equally a broad lyrical expansiveness, which never cloys, in the opening movement of Op 59 No1, which I find very sympathetic. They are good at the whimsical changes of mood in the succeeding Allegretto and whilst they are quite slow in the adagio there is always with the Juilliard commensurate rhythmic momentum and eloquence. Maybe the concluding Allegro is somewhat forced – the passagework is deliberate, the tempo sounds deliberately obstructed and the result is that the movement sounds unduly ponderous. The first movement recapitulation in Op 59 No 2 distends the movement to a remarkable 13’35 and it seems longer. The second movement, the glorious molto Adagio, opens well but is then subjected to some poor articulation and, once more, ponderousness sets in, despite the objectively adequate timing – 13.01. Though not explicitly too slow shapelessness makes it seem so and the arbitrary sounding accelerandos add a cool and manicured quality to the music making. Whilst the finale is good at locating the bristling naughtiness in the writing it’s too little to salvage a performance that strives hard but accomplishes little.

Elegance but sprightliness animates the Andante con moto quasi allegretto of Op 59 No 3. This is a much better performance than its earlier Opus mate, No 2, and shows their structural control of material at quite a sedate tempo. How well they understand the elegant antiquarianism of the third movement minuet - their predecessors at The Library of Congress, for example, The Budapest Quartet, routinely made the most almighty hash of it whenever they played it. Samuel Rhodes, the splendid violist of the group, shines in the finale, its perpetual motion and fugal episodes marvellously delineated – there is no loss of articulation at a relatively sprightly tempo. They bring to the Quartets Opp 74 and 95 great structural acuity and control. Their tempi sound assured and yet pliant. The depth and sense of spaciousness in, for example, the slow movement of Op 74 is the result of a commanding sense of uniform line; the charm and clarity of the concluding Allegretto the product of instrumental sophistication and musical understanding.

Strong and admiring applause greets the end of the quartets; some coughing can be heard but it is mercifully almost entirely absent and for the most part you won’t notice that these are live performances. Not without problematical moments – obviously I didn’t care at all for Op 59 No 2 – these are still challenging and worthy performances. If my instincts incline me at moments more to their American colleagues, the Fine Arts Quartet, that’s not to underestimate the more famous quartet; the Juilliard still have plenty of sane things to say in this repertoire.

Jonathan Woolf

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