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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’ (1810)
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat, Op.127 (1825)
The Lindsays
Recorded in Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth, Yorkshire, 25-27 June 2001
ASV CD DCA 1116 [58’52]


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The Lindsays already have a Beethoven cycle under their belt from the 1980s, and very recommendable it still is, especially at lower mid-price. This new, ongoing digital cycle appears to be building on their earlier achievements, with the attributes that marked out those performances very much in evidence – tonal strength, concentration, a refusal to sentimentalise the music – but now with added insight drawn from living with this great music over many more years.

The sheer force and power of the readings is obvious from the imperious unison opening of Op.95, one of the most commanding starts to any Beethoven work. Indeed, as Richard Wigmore’s highly informative insert note tells us, this is one of the composer’s most violently concentrated movements, "a high-pressure sonata drama that packs an astonishing amount of activity into a mere four-minute span". This is true of the whole work, and it shows a composer having no truck with conventional transitions, neat cadences or ‘safe’ modulations; the key changes are sudden, sharp shocks which the Lindsays bring out with suitable abandon, even roughness. There is no lack of blend, of course, but occasionally their sheer involvement in the drama gives the music a raw edge that I find appropriate. If one turns to other full price rivals (I happened to have the Tokyo Quartet’s cycle, on RCA, to hand) one encounters a smoothness and richness that has its own rewards, but misses something of the danger in the music. A good comparison can be made with the two finales, where I feel the Lindsays just have the edge in bringing out the turbulence and abruptness that so characterises the piece. The Tokyos are superb in the shimmering F major coda (around 3’45), but the Lindsays are determined to make the most of the almost comic send-off that the work gets, where Beethoven gives us, to quote Wigmore, "not so much a typical resolution as an airy denial of the pain and violence that have gone before". Just so.

The magnificent follow up to this work is one of the great chamber music statements, even by Beethoven’s standards. Op.127 came a full twelve years after its predecessor, and has a profundity that has brought out the best in string quartet ensembles over the decades. The sonorous, almost organ-like opening chords that set the great journey in motion, are beautifully voiced by the Lindsays, and give us a glimpse of the strengths (and occasional weaknesses) on this performance. The raw vitality that characterised Op.95 is still there, and is heard at its best in the marvellous third movement scherzando vivace, where the refusal to smooth out the lines pays dividends. Only in the great variation-form adagio do I miss the level of profundity on offer elsewhere, most notably (to my ears, at least) in the Talich Quartet’s traversal on Calliope. It’s a subtle thing, but a good example occurs around 10’15, where Beethoven conjurs up a strange, spare-textured variation in D flat minor (notated for convenience as C sharp minor) that the Talich’s play as a rapt meditation, a spiritual prelude before the dance-like final variation. This level of insight is just missed by the Lindsays, but other compensations, such as better tuning and a less close-up balance, do tend to make amends.

If you are a dedicated follower of the Lindsay cycle, you will not be disappointed. The recording is excellent, spacious and detailed, and the liner notes a model of their kind. There is a great deal of competition in this repertoire, some of it (like the excellent Italian Quartet, on Philips Duo) at mid and budget price. But the Lindsays are now among the finest ensembles before the public, with a deep understanding of this music and a maturity that has grown with the years. Their playing can withstand the severest of comparisons, and buyers new to the repertoire but wanting bang up to date sound quality, can certainly purchase with confidence.

Tony Haywood



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