> Beethoven - The String Quartets [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

The Early String Quartets
Op 18 Nos 1-6
The Fine Arts Quartet
Recorded 1969
EVEREST EVC 9051/52 [2 CDs 143’20]


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The Middle String Quartets
Op 59 Nos 1-3
Op 74
Op 95
The Fine Arts Quartet
Recorded 1969
EVEREST EVC 9053/55 [3 CDs 149’32]


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The Late String Quartets
Op 127
Op 130
Op 131
Op 132
Op 135
Grosse Fugue Op 133
The Fine Arts Quartet
Recorded 1969
EVEREST EVC 9056/58 [3 CDs 196’53]


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The Fine Arts Quartet was founded in Chicago in 1946. Leonard Sorkin, first violin, and George Sopkin, cello, remained constant but the inner chairs changed over the years, second violin Joseph Stepansky giving way to Abram Loft – also internationally known for his treatise on the violin sonata literature – in 1954. Bernard Zaslav, the violist, replaced the previous chronological trio of Shepard Lehnhoff, Irving Ilmer and Gerald Stanick. This set of the Beethoven Quartets - perhaps their most enduring discographic legacy – finds them in a transitional period in the late 1960s when the necessities of recording dates meant that both Stanwick and Ilmer took part; Stanwick recorded the Razumovsky Quartets, Opp 74, 95 and Op 18 Nos 1,2,5 and 6 – and Ilmer the rest.

Whatever the respective line up may have been the Fine Arts maintained an admirable sense of discipline, tonal blend and homogeneity of sound. They were also adventurous in repertoire. Whilst collectors will be well acquainted with the core repertoire traversals, such as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with Reginald Kell, they may be less so with the contemporary literature that the Quartet did a great deal to promote – Babbitt, Wuorinen, Shifrin and Crawford amongst others. The Fine Arts were also dedicated teachers; originally resident quartet of the American Broadcasting Company in Chicago they began a concentrated series of chamber concerts in the city in 1961. A growing reputation led to recordings and international tours and like so many groups they became attached to the faculty of a University – in their case the University of Wisconsin, in 1963. It was in 1969 that they embarked on the complete Beethoven Quartets after a steady decade’s worth of increasingly successful music making. The Everest set – all three boxes that constitute it are available separately – has been re-released using 20 bit digital sound. The Fine Arts were never as well known as they should have been and the set gives us the opportunity to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in this most exacting of repertoire.

The Op 18 quartets are consistently convincing. No 1 is leisurely and lyrical with a liltingly tender and affectionate Adagio, though one never suffused with too much maudlin sentiment. The concluding allegro is fluent and precise with intelligent application of suitably light bow pressure when necessary. The G Major, No 2, begins with fluid amiability; the rustic episode is especially well brought off and equally so the hymn-like simplicity of the slow movement. The scherzo is sprightly whilst the finale picks up the emotional temperature of the scherzo with seamless aplomb. The Fine Arts are adept at crisp – but scaled – exchanges, as in the opening of the Third of the set. They take an animated tempo for the slow movement properly observant of the con moto marking, but not as quickly as the 1953 Hungarian Quartet’s traversal. In the finale they outpace the Hungarians and this is a real presto – fluently witty with some rollicking cello lines and an excellent deadpan ending. The Fourth opens with some duetting between violins – real consonance of tonal qualities is a hallmark of the Quartet – and then between viola and cello. They are certainly not averse to trenchant attacks and rightly so and take a mobile view of the scherzo; andante movement. Contrastive material is effortlessly integrated with unsentimental distinction and they give life to the charmingly rhythmic motif embedded in the movement. Elegance is the hallmark of their finale as is the easy familiarity of the opening of the Fifth of the set. Lines are built with sensitive attention to detail in the slow movement – they are alive to the sensitive pointing as much as to the stomping buoyancy of Beethoven’s writing. Solid rhythm underpins the vivacity of their attacking allegro. In the last of the six they are careful not to set out at an over strident tempo whilst still observing the con brio indication. They bring a touching simplicity to the adagio, are vigorous in the scherzo and shape with discernment the shifting harmonies of the finale, balancing and distributing weight with sure understanding.

The middle period quartets, Opp 59, 74 and 95 feature the Sorkin-Loft-Stanick-Sopkin line up. Clarity, homogeneity and projection of mood in proportion to the musical material are some of the more obvious characteristics of their playing. Their chosen tempi are often flowing – though not unduly so and seldom sound rushed. And in Op 59 No 1 they are in command, at a well-chosen tempo, of the ebb and flow of the musical argument of the first movement. Their playfulness in the second contrasts well with the affecting exchanges in the succeeding adagio molto e mesto where the passage from 6’02 is tender and lyrical; one feels as well that they invariably take a long term structural view because they link material that other quartets tend to project as rhetorically oppositional. The finale builds up a head of steam based on a good tempo and sensitive dynamics – nothing outlandish or tonally over expressive. The great F Major is attractive without quite becoming outstanding. Again their speeds are consonant and musical. In the allegretto they are elegant and in the slow movement take 11’07 as against the Hungarian Quartet’s 11’24 and, most touching of all these, the 1960 Budapest who take a wonderfully lingering 13’58. Nevertheless once again the Fine Arts sound unhurried here even if one may feel Leonard Sorkin fractionally too animated. Quicksilver articulation animates the finale, as the four build a real momentum. The Third of the Op 59 is another good performance – fluent, technically adroit, alive to the dance, with well-weighted pizzicati from Sopkin, a sunny Minuet and clearly delineated fugal entries in the finale – spick and span without over decorousness and a satisfyingly lean tonal blend. The Harp Quartet, Op 74, is considerably fleeter than the 1950 Hungarians and features one of Sorkin’s rare but attractive quick slides. Throughout the articulation is excellent, the slow movement projected with simplicity, the songful joy that breaks out in the third movement Presto

handled with delicacy and care. The Op 95, the Serioso, displays the delicacy and finesse of vibrato usage of all four musicians; Stanick shines in the Allegretto and he displays a lean well-centred tone. There is always forward momentum in the Fine Arts’ performances but not the blistering, breathless kind. It’s rather to do with their rhythmic subtlety – there is drama within musical constraints, perfectly exemplified by the Allegro assai of Op 95. The flourishing end to the quartet is accompanied by graded dynamics, observed with an acumen we have now come to expect.

The last quartets are the greatest test of course. Their opening of Op 127 is certainly not as stentorian as others can be and they prefer pliancy and equalized playing. At quite a slow tempo, well sustained, without exaggeration they build the adagio. This is clear-eyed playing with tremendous clarity in the first and second violin lines. They choose a rather better tempo than the 1953 Hungarians for the scherzando vivace emphasising the dance rhythms with rhythmic finesse and the Finale is comprehensively persuasive. They take a temperate view of Op 131 as a whole valuing a degree of objectivity but not at the expense of feeling. Maybe the presto isn’t quite as fleet as the Hungarians, who shave half a minute off the Fine Arts’ three but with clarity of articulation like this the tempos generally seem right. The slow movement is very slow. They take 15’30 as against the Hungarians’ 11’56 and the wartime Budapest 12’56; even the 1930s Lenér Quartet take only 13’10 and they weren’t necessarily famed for fast tempi in the last quartets. Nevertheless the Fine Arts are entirely convincing in their own way; they shape and phrase with unimpeachable logic. They are amusing in the Finale, where some perfumed – I think too perfumed – phrasing contrasts with more abrasive playing.

Integration of disparate – or seemingly disparate – elements is a feature of the Fine Arts in these last quartets. Well modulated playing informs Op 130. I liked Sorkin’s very eloquently phrased playing in the slow movement as well as the filigree passagework and sensible, flowing tempo as I did the charming lilt and delicious weight of tone the four bring to the Allegro assai. The great Cavatina is played not so slowly that any fracturing of the line takes place nor so quickly that the inner structure and logic of its playing preclude beauty and expressivity. Wholly successful. Their finale is sensible and effective and quietly cognizant of the mischievousness of the writing. The Grosse Fugue takes its place here, at the end of the disc, immediately following Op 130. It is objective without coldness and doesn’t downplay the sterner moments of accusatory syntax. It also affords Sorkin the opportunity to emphasise lyrical passages with one or two succulent moments. Op 132 opens with intelligent demarcation of attack, its adagio at a tempo between the rapidity of the 1953 Hungarians and the sublime indulgence of the 1930s Lenér. Diminuendos are closely observed, attention to detail is the means by which the full significance of the movement can best be conveyed, and the humour and reflection of the movement receive their due. Those looking for the deeper intimacies may find the Fine Arts somewhat aloof but they lose nothing in a finale which has more than its share of refinement and leisurely confidence. Finally Op 135; the opening movement may sound languid when judged against the Hungarian Quartet and lacking in brutal contrasts but that is not the Fine Arts’ way. Sorkin lavishes real sensitivity on the passage at the beginning of the slow movement – at no stage does one feel these four musicians are point making. Instead the quartet evolves with a naturalness and logic that impresses one with its far seeing involvement.

There’s been a lot of discographic water under the bridge with regard to the Beethoven Quartets ever since the Lenér first committed them all to 78s in the 1930s. The Fine Arts’ distinguished contribution takes its place once more in the catalogues. Their reluctance to indulge extremes may disappoint some; others may consider them too equable; tonally their lean flexibility may not have the outsize opulence of some of their rivals; heaven storming heights and soul stirring depths may be the preserve of other, better known quartets; but sometimes, often, the Fine Arts Quartet is as nourishing and welcome as spring water and their purity is cool and crisp and clear.

Jonathan Woolf

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