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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
String Quartets Volume 5

String Quartet No. 15 Op. 132 (1825) [46.13]
String Quartet No. 16 Op. 135 (1826) [26.24]
Borodin Quartet (2005): (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov, vv; Igor Naidin, vla; Valentin Berlinsky, vc)
Recorded at the Conservatory, Moscow, Russia; Op. 135 in the Small Hall, 15 April 2004, and Op. 132 in the Great Hall, 18 July 2004.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
CHANDOS CHAN 10304 [72.48]


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 132, Alban Berg Quartet EMI 7243 5 69793 2 1

These last quartets of Beethoven are among his very greatest and most influential works, written when he was stone deaf. His recovery from a bout of serious illness in May of 1825 gave rise to the deeply-felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called "Holy song of thanks (‘Heiliger dankgesang’) to the divinity, from one made well." But his liver cirrhosis soon again became acute. The Sixteenth Quartet was the last complete work he wrote, although after that in December 1826 he wrote a new final movement to the thirteenth quartet to replace the Grosse Fuge. He lay on a filthy mattress saturated with vomit, diarrhoea, and the copious exudate from his suppurating liver, and out of this hell of stink came this charming, delightful music - Op. 135. People who loved him came to help him, pilgrims came to touch the expiring saint of music. He died on 24 March 1826.

The late quartets were rarely performed during his life and even for some time thereafter. It wasn’t until Schoenberg’s 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 group’s 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, at the very least 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. 15 an awesome intellectual monumentality.

These Borodin Quartet performances are more relaxed and very dramatic. Tragic sections become sadly wistful. Lyric sections are very lyric. Ironic sections become playful; the vivace in Op. 135 has never sounded so fleetingly light. Vigorous sections become rollickingly joyful. As in their Shostakovich cycle, if a passage can be interpreted as having a dance rhythm, it is boldly so interpreted, and as a result these performances are more energetic, extroverted and optimistic than any I’ve ever heard. Throughout there is a sense of close ensemble, an intense desire to find and communicate humour and joy which can in other hands sound excessively — even monotonously — gloomy. Perhaps this would not be so remarkable in, for instance, the Op. 18 quartets, which I have not heard these artists perform. Recorded sound is excellent, clear, close and realistic. Again, these are not Soviet recordings.

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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