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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets: Op. 14 No. 1 (1798/9: composer’s own transcription of the piano sonata) [14’15]; Op. 59 No. 3, ‘Razumovsky’ (1806) [25’30].
The New Music String Quartet (Broadus Erle, Matthew Raimondi, violins; Walter Trampler, viola; Claus Adam, cello).
Rec. North Stonington, Connecticut, in the early 1950s. mono ADD

Surely anyone who has played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E, Op. 14 No. 1 (and many have, given its status for years - who knows, maybe it’s still there - on the Associated Board’s Grade 8 exam) will be aware of the frequency of four-part writing, so it should come as no surprise that it transcribes easily for string quartet. What is really lovely is to hear it in a clean, warmly, even welcomingly, recorded account such as this one. Of all four players of the New Music String Quartet, maybe for a change the violist is the best known. Walter Trampler (1915-1997) was previously a violin member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also recorded some Berio on viola - from which I first knew him: with the composer directing and the Juilliard Ensemble on RCA LSC3168. He also commissioned new works. Claus Adam was later a member of the Juilliard Quartet. The New Music String Quartet disbanded in 1955.

Cleanliness of texture is a characteristic that runs through Op. 14 No. 1. This is a considered reading - notice the care with which the players articulate the repeated crotchets of the second subject, for example, or the even interlocking semiquaver thirds that are tossed from instrument to instrument. Interestingly the piece seems to take on more depth of utterance in the string quartet medium and it was possibly this that the players were trying to emphasise by taking what feels like a rather slow tempo for the middle movement. Here it sounds portentous. Of course the large, several-octave slur for first violin that introduces the Trio works better than on the piano because of better connectivity between the notes.

Beethoven re-writes the left-hand of the third movement, replacing the arpeggiated triplets with syncopation. A syncopated effect does occur in the piano original, though it is rather different in that he right-hand is syncopated, while the left maintains the original triplets.

The warmth of The New Music String Quartet’s sound comes easily across the years. As does one element of period practice, that of slight portamento (probably best described as a ‘slither’) that the first violin inserts around 14’06. Incidentally, that timing refers to fourteen minutes into the quartet as a whole – for some reason, Bartók Records do not track individual movements, so there are only two tracks on the disc.

The third Razumovsky is a superb reading, one to stand along with the very best. The New Music Quartet conjures up a miraculous sense of stillness in the first movement’s ‘Introduzione’, contrasting it with perky playing in the first movement proper, the Allegro vivace (no tempo indications are given in the documentation either, by the way). Throughout there is a simply superb sense of free communication between the instruments, as if they are living and breathing this music rather than merely playing it. For the second movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) perhaps there could have been a little more resonance on the cello pizzicati, but for the rest this is a delight, especially the imitative passages. Shadings in the Menuetto are superb. Yet the surprise comes with the finale. It is marked Allegro molto, and The New Music String Quartet certainly take the molto bit at face value. In doing so, yet simultaneously maintaining clarity, the tension is markedly high but not frenzied. Superb.

This disc is well worth searching out - Bartók Records’ web address is given above.

Colin Clarke

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