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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets: Volume 9 – No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [38’28]; No. 16 in F, Op. 135 (1826) [28’30].
The Lindsays (Peter Cropper, Ronald Birks, violins; Robin Ireland, viola; Bernard Gregor-Smith, cello).
Rec. Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth, Yorkshire, on June 25th-27th, 2001. DDD
ASV CD DCA1119 [67’35]

 

The Lindsays’ most recent Beethoven cycle goes from strength to strength. The C sharp minor quartet is one of the pinnacles of the repertoire, requiring almost superhuman powers of concentration from its interpreters. The Lindsays join the select few ensembles who can scale these heights with success – in modern times, the Alban Berg Quartet, The Talich Quartet (on Calliope) and (in an inferior recording) the Quartetto Italiano; from a previous era the great Busch Quartet springs straight to mind.

Another strength of ASV’s series is the booklet notes by Richard Wigmore. Fascinatingly informative, he has a knack of putting things in precisely the right way. And no-one, surely, would argue with his description of the first movement of Op. 131 as ‘sublime’. Here, it certainly exudes an Olympian calm. It has to be admitted that the bow-work of the lead violin, Peter Cropper, can be less than 100% smooth, but despite this, the music makes a memorable impact. Or maybe one should say because of it, for there is an almost frighteningly emaciated aspect to this Adagio (ma non troppo e molto espressivo) held within a deliberate reticence that makes the arrival of an sf at 1’39 seem a most welcome addition to the sound-scape. The predominant impression is of a restful surface that has hidden undercurrents – undercurrents that do not lie far beneath the chilly top.

The second movement makes explicit these self-same undercurrents. Nervy, highly strung, it leads into the similarly unsettled Allegro moderato, which with its disruptive mood-juxtapositions makes a huge impression completely out of kilter with its actual temporal length (a mere 46 seconds). When the fourth movement creeps in, the marking of ‘molto cantabile’ is once more under an umbrella of barely-concealed stress. This remarkable central movement (13’31) requires interpreters of the calibre of The Lindsays to control and prolong the concentration - and they succeed beyond all question.

Nothing could be greater than the contrast of the fifth movement, and The Lindsays convey all the grim humour contained therein, especially the disjunct final pages with their remarkable spectral scoring. The poignancy of the sixth movement is almost heart-breaking – just as well it is only two minutes long – before the seventh and final movement unleashes the angry, gruff side of Beethoven. The Lindsays are certainly not afraid of what might be termed ‘un-beautiful’ sounds – a rawness that conveys all the inherent anger of this music.

To hear this performance is a strangely compelling yet ultimately unsettling experience, which, of course, is precisely as it should be. If there is a problem, it is the one of old that Peter Cropper can get rather carried away and his tuning can go wayward, but it is nowhere near as pronounced here as it can be heard under live conditions.

The Quartet in F, Op. 135 was Beethoven’s last completed quartet (he still had the replacement finale to Op. 130 ahead of him). If there is an element of a return to Classical forms in its nicely-behaved four movement structure and a Haydnesque caprice to the very opening, the quartet remains unmistakably late Beethoven (as Wigmore points out in his notes). A pity Cropper’s intonation at around 1’50 in the second movement Vivace spoils an otherwise involving experience, notable for its rhythmic buoyancy.

The third movement (Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo) invokes the intensity of Op. 131 – especially the silences, that here have that hold-your-breath-quality about them. Cast in variation form (so beloved of Beethoven in his late works), its shadow hangs over the finale. Titled ‘Der schwer gefasste Entschluss’ (‘The difficult decision’), it wrestles with an unspecified question, the answer to which is a determined, ‘Es muss sein’ – ‘It must be’. If only some tuning problems up top again had not distracted, The Lindsays’ version could so easily have been at the top of the tree.

Nevertheless, this disc represents a noteworthy achievement.

Colin Clarke



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