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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No.6 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1798-1800) [24:38]
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1822, 1824-25) [37:46]
Henschel Quartet
rec. December 6-9, 2004, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, German Republic DDD
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS 82876 63996 2 [62:55]
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The Henschel Quartet are making a considerable impact in the music world with consistently impressive performances, often sparkling and exhilarating with considerable empathic insights.

The quartet from Sindelfingen in Germany is notable in that three of the players are siblings: the brothers Christoph and Markus Henschel are violinists and sister Monika Henschel-Schwind the violist are joined by cellist Matthias Beyer-Karlshøj. As one of the leading new-generation quartets the Henschels together with the British-based ensemble the Belcea and the Škampa from Czechoslovakia are leading the way, superbly maintaining exceptionally high standards of performance. Following on the heels of their acclaimed complete Mendelssohn quartets on Arte Nova Classics 82876 64009 2 the Henschel have now turned their attention to two of Beethoven’s quartets; one from the composer’s first creative period and the other from his later years.

String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No.6 (1798-1800)

The set of six string quartets, Op. 18 ‘the Lobkowitz’ Quartets’ saw the twenty-eight year old Beethoven, deep into his first creative period, exploring what was for him new compositional territory. By this time he had already written a wide range of chamber music, including string trios, piano trios, cello sonatas, violin sonatas et al. Previously, he had kept a respectful distance from the genre that had reached the peak of its development, so profoundly demonstrated by Haydn and Mozart.

The impetus to launch out on this challenging compositional terrain finally came in late 1798. The works came about in response to a commission for a package of six string quartets from Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz, who was a native of Bohemia and a leading patron of the arts in Vienna. Though thoroughly grounded in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, these quartets demonstrate new attitudes, techniques and nuances of expression. Although for the time being in these quartets the remarkable innovation and incredible experimentation, as shown in his later quartets, are subservient to an exuberance and tranquil grace that belongs to an older order.

The turn of the century was an extremely significant period for Beethoven, as at the time of, or shortly after, completing this set he was to astound the music world with the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major ‘Spring’, Piano Sonata in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, Symphony No. 2 in D major and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. All this came about in a period when he had confided to close friends that his hearing was rapidly deteriorating.

The B flat major quartet contains one of the most tragic pages found in the entire Op. 18. The cheerful opening movement allegro con brio with its appealing and light-footed first subject is given a joyous and often exhilarating performance with spontaneity and refinement. In the allegro ma non troppo movement the ensemble produce seemingly effortless playing of raptly sustained serenity. The scherzo with its effective syncopations and whimsical trio is interpreted with considerable affection, wit and infectious playing. Beethoven entitled the concluding movement ‘La Melinchonia (melancholy)’ and insisted that it be played, "with the greatest of delicacy." Many writers have commented on the brief anguished slow passage at the start of the final movement as the real beginnings of Romanticism in music. Here it is performed with appropriate tenderness and subtlety. The quicker music that follows rejects sorrow and embarks on a more convivial mood that the accomplished Henschels interpret with a controlled vitality.

In this B flat major string quartet it is hard to look outside the recording from Quatuor Mosaïques (performed on period instruments). They are peerless in these Op. 18 scores (Naïve E 8899). Using modern instruments an alternative to the excellent Henschels is contained in the complete Op. 18 from the Italian Quartet, recorded in Switzerland between 1972-75 and presented in a three disc boxed set on Philips 464 071-2.

String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1822, 1824-25)

The violent contrasts and the avant-garde tonality that feature in Beethoven’s last five String Quartets and the Grosse Fuge are the most remarkable, not only among his own creations but also in all string quartet literature. Music writer David Ewen explains that with the first of the set, the E flat major quartet and Beethoven’s other late four string quartets the listener was, "... confronted to a new manner of voice treatment, a new approach to structure, a new concept of lyricism and thematic development together with the most daring progressions, modulations and discords." All this helped to create an emotional state that had never previously been known in music. Amongst this interest and confusion one contemporary commentator dismissed the late string quartets as "the confused mental wanderings of a deaf composer."

In November 1822, Beethoven was commissioned by the Russian Prince Nikolaus Borisovitch Galitsin to compose two or three new String quartets. Beethoven decided to make use of a work that he had already started, the E flat major String quartet, Op. 127. Owing to his deep immersion with the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’ Beethoven was unable to finish the score to the E flat major until February 1825. He completed Galitsin’s commission with the addition of the quartets Op. 132 and Op. 130 later that year and in that order. The composition of each of Prince Galitsin’s three quartets proved to be nothing less than a true adventure for its creator, an experiment in an imaginary world of sound. By this time Beethoven was almost completely deaf. The first performance of Op. 127 was given in March 1825, in Vienna and elicited nothing but incomprehension from the audience. Composer Vincent D’Indy calls this quartet the last of Beethoven’s pastoral symphonies, for it was written in the country and breathes a love of nature that was so characteristic.

Op. 127 and the other late string quartets also display a disregard for the customary and classic understanding of proportion, which manifests itself in unusually or even excessively long playing times. As if this was not enough to alienate the audiences of the day Beethoven questioned the customary four movement format. Sketches have shown that he had originally planned Op. 127 in six movements. In fact, all the quartets that Beethoven wrote after this comprised more than four movements.

The E flat major quartet, Op. 127 opens with a slow six-bar introduction which is played by the Henschels in a manner more tentative than majestic. In the succeeding allegro the astutely chosen tempi provide a serene and pastoral mood. From this idyllic state we pass into the spirituality and mysticism of the adagio. The movement which is one of the longest in any Beethoven quartet uses a theme followed by six variations and is one of the most sublime and contemplative slow movements the composer ever wrote. A prominent pizzicato passage towards the end of the adagio leads into the scherzo. The Henschels prove to be understanding interpreters in the slow movement with a measured approach that repudiates sentimentality and displays superb control. The third movement scherzo is also one of the longest Beethoven wrote. The Henschels provide a suitably agitated and nervous mood, although slightly more vitality would have been preferred. The allegro finale provides occasional respite from the unrest of the scherzo. This largely cheerful and frequently robust movement is offset by excursions into warm and gentle lyricism. In the allegro all the players share this rewarding music as a well balanced team, although I would have appreciated a touch more weight and intensity.

This fine account of Op. 127 is well worth adding to any collection and will provide considerable pleasure. Those looking for alternative versions are especially well served with recordings from eminent ensembles such as the Talich on Calliope, the Lindsay on ASV, the Végh on Valois, the Alban Berg on EMI, the Leipzig on MD&G, the Amadeus on DG et al. However, my recommendation is for the 1968 ADD account from the Italian Quartet on a Philips Duo set 454 711-2 c/w String Quartets Opp. 130, 135 and the Grosse Fuge Op. 133. A digital alternative that should not disappoint is the 1994 performance from the Emerson on a Deutsche Grammophon Trio series 474 341-2 c/w String Quartets Opp. 130, 131, 132, 135, the Grosse Fuge Op. 133 and an alternative finale: allegro to Op.130.

This Arte Nova Classics release is splendidly recorded although I found the liner notes uninteresting and rather technical. Surely it can be only a matter of time before the Henschel find their way on to one of the big name labels. The reputation of the Henschel continues to go from strength to strength and their playing serves Beethoven admirably with this superb release.

Michael Cookson


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