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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
String Quartets Volume 4

String Quartet No. 12 Op. 127 (1824) [37.22]
String Quartet No. 13 Op. 130 (1825, new finale 1826) [42.11]
Borodin Quartet (2005): Ruben Aharonian, Andre Abramenkov, vv; Igor Naidin, vla; Valentin Berlinsky, vc
Recorded in Small Hall, Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, 24 April 2004
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
CHANDOS CHAN 10292 [79.39]

Comparison recordings of these quartets:
Guarneri Quartet [late 1960s ADD] RCA/BMG 82876-55704-2
Vegh Quartet [1952 monophonic AAD] Music & Arts CD-1084
Hollywood String Quartet [1958 monophonic ADD] Testament SBT 3082
Opus 130, Alban Berg Quartet, with Op 133 finale also. EMI CDC 7 47136-2

These last quartets of Beethoven are among his very greatest and most influential works, written when he was stone deaf. They were rarely performed during his life and even for some time thereafter. It wasnít until Schoenbergís exploration of atonality that the full harmonic implications of these magnificent works were significantly demonstrated.

When I first saw this recording I assumed it was one of the Chandos Historical series from the Soviet Union, but, no, these are brand new recordings by the venerable and still active Borodin quartet. Only the cellist, Valentin Berlinsky has been with the group since the earliest days in the 1950s, and violinist Abramenkov is the only other hold-over from the groupís magnificent Haydn Seven Last Words or their fine 1980s second recorded traversal of the Shostakovich Quartets. Aharonian and Naidin are new to my experience. The good news is that the Borodin Quartet, with half new personnel, is still everything it ever was. This is the first complete Beethoven cycle this group has ever recorded, although they played Beethoven quartets before, albeit rarely.

The Hollywood String Quartet make these quartets sound so beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than they should sound. The (first) Vegh performance on the other hand is possessed of a raw, gripping, wiry energy. The Guarneri play with wide dynamics, romance, and passion. The Alban Berg quartet achieve in No. 13 an awesome intellectual monumentality which leads naturally into the Grosse Fuge movement, after which they play the 1826 finale also, giving you, if you can last it out, a seven movement version clocking in at 52.18.

These performances are very dramatic. Tragic sections become sadly wistful. Lyric sections are very lyric; the famous cavatina in Op. 130 has never sung out so affectingly. Intellectual passages are softened. Ironic sections become playful; the presto has never sounded so fleetingly light. Vigorous sections become rollickingly joyful. As in their Shostakovich cycle, give these players something resembling a peasant dance and, they really go to town on Saturday night with it, and as a result these performances are more extroverted and optimistic than Iíve ever heard. Throughout there is a sense of close ensemble, an intense desire to find and communicate joy in this music which can in other hands sound excessively ó even monotonously ó gloomy. Perhaps this would not be so remarkable in, for instance, the Op. 18 quartets. Recorded sound is excellent, clear, close and realistic.

The Borodiners consider the fugue an integral part of a solo performance of No. 13, not a separate work. But, since it is not put on the same disk, you canít play No. 13 in its originally conceived version if you only own this disk; you must buy the fugue separately on Chandos 10268 (which Iíve not heard) and then program your CD changer to play the movements in the proper sequence.

The Beethoven quartets are so varied in mood and structure that hearing a fine performance of these two says little if anything about how the other quartets would be played. I hope very much to hear this whole set soon, but, in the meantime, buy the other volumes in this series at your own risk.

Paul Shoemaker

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