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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets, Volume 1: Rasumovsky Quartets
String Quartet, in F major Rasumovsky Op.59 No.1 [39:57]
String Quartet, in C major Rasumovsky Op.59 No.3 [32:58]
Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian (violin); Andrei Abramenkov (violin); Igor Naidin (viola); Valentin Berlinsky (cello))
Recorded at the Small Hall, Moscow Conservatoire, Moscow; March 2003. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10178 [72:59]

Lovers of the Beethoven string quartets are particularly well served with the number and exceptionally high quality of alternative versions in the catalogues. For the Op. 59 Rasumovsky Quartets there are versions from an astonishing thirty different ensembles currently available. They give the listener a bewildering choice. All the top ensembles are represented and the choice is very much down to personal taste.

In 1805 Count Andreas Rasumovsky the Russian Ambassador to Austria commissioned Beethoven to write three string quartets. Beethoven rapidly completed his commission during the summer of 1806. Not since the Opus 18 set some six years earlier had Beethoven composed for the medium of the string quartet. Beethoven biographer John N. Burk wrote in 1943 that the Rasumovsky quartets were, "vigorously independent, calling forth the full tonal capacity of four stringed instruments when his thoughts tend to symphonic proportions. His manipulatory power, enormously increased, welds and tightens, liberates, builds. The fancy takes any sort of flights it wills and is richly various… The three quartets Op.59 are in their way the subtlest, the most viable and deeply personal expression of what is called Beethoven’s second period."

Count Rasumovsky was an amateur cellist and in the first Op. 59 Rasumovsky String Quartet, in F major Beethoven wrote an extended role for the instrument. Consequently the work is sometimes known as the ’Cello quartet’. The four movements are in sonata form the finale of which makes use of a theme Russe which is Beethoven paying homage to Count Rasumovsky’s homeland which apparently was one of the conditions of the commission. The finale is preceded by one of those tragic and sublime slow movements that are frequently encountered in later Beethoven where the two main melodies combine to give expression to a pathos beyond solace.

The third Op. 59 Rasumovsky string quartet is generally considered to be the most dramatic of the trilogy and has been given the title ’Heroic quartet’ owing to the virility and relentlessly aggressive nature of the work. Power dominates the outer two movements and the finale actually contains a tumultuous fugue which has been described as the culmination and crowning glory of the entire Op. 59 set. Musicologist Homer Ulrich wrote of the fugue that, "its confidence, its unquestioned joy, its dramatic climaxes, and its sheer joie de vivre make it one of the most exciting pieces in the literature." The two central movements have a lighter texture and a brighter spirit. The second movement Andante is gentle and reflective and the quartet uses a delicate minuet-like Allegretto in place of a more usual Scherzo.

There is much high class competition in these Opus 59 string quartets and I have four noteworthy versions in my collection which have provided much pleasure over the years and are certainly worth considering. The Lindsay Quartet on ASV digital CDDCS 207 offer marvellous performances. Their insights are considered by many as unlikely to be surpassed in the modern recorded versions. The version by the Tokyo Quartet on RCA digital RD 60462 is also widely acknowledged as being one of the premier interpretations in the catalogue with splendidly judged tempi with beautifully proportioned performances. For Decca digital 470 847-2 the Takacs String Quartet provide an exuberant performance with playing of the highest order. This version’s strong sense of direction with masterly control of shape and emotion has impressed many renowned judges.

My long time particular favourite of the Opus 59 Rasumovsky Quartets is the version by the famous Italian Quartet on Philips 420 797-2. Admittedly the sound quality is slightly thin by the standards of the main competitors but the performances are distinguished with impeccable phasing, pure intonation and with tempos that are finely judged with plenty of bite. The performance of Cellist Franco Rossi is particularly remarkable displaying a wonderful singing tone throughout.

Although not my first choice the Borodin Quartet on this Chandos release provide very fine performances of the first and third Rasumovsky Op. 59 String Quartets with considerable and intelligent insights. I particularly like their superbly polished playing which I find musical and satisfying throughout. The Borodin interpretations are marked by an unusually high degree of refinement in their musicianship across both works. Starting as they mean to go on the Borodin Quartet offer considerable vitality, pace and bite consistently and noticeably right from the commencement of the first few bars of the recording. The empathy between the players is exceptional and perhaps nowhere more impressive than in the second movement allegretto of the F major and the final movement allegro of the C major. I must also single out for special praise the Borodin’s wonderful playing in the final movement allegro of the F major quartet; absolutely superb.

The Borodin quartet cannot compete in the slow movements with the searing emotion and the shear spiritual radiance of the serene episodes of the Italian Quartet’s interpretations on Philips. The Italians are my joint first choice and seem to have that special ability to make the hairs raise on the neck in Beethoven’s turbulent emotions. For me there is also a subtle unity in the performance of these quartets from the Lindsays on ASV and an insight which is unique and very special.

On a lighter note I’m rather surprised at Chandos for using the rather fearsome and most unflattering portrait of Beethoven by Ferdinand Schimon on the front cover. The photograph of the Borodins that is used on the rear booklet cover would have been far more appropriate for promotion purposes and would have been far less likely to frighten-off the casual purchaser. Poor marketing from Chandos here.

The sound quality from the Chandos engineers is very fine with clarity and real presence. High quality performances that are certainly worth consideration but the competition is exceptionally fierce in these works.

Michael Cookson


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