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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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only available separately

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets (complete) (1798-1827)
The Borodin Quartet

Volume 1: String Quartet Opp. 59 No. 1 (1806) [39.57] and No. 3 (1806) [32.58]
CHANDOS CHAN 10178 [72.59]
Volume 2: String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 (1806) [44.50] and Op. 74 (1809) [33.26]
CHANDOS CHAN 10191 [78.30]
Volume 3: String Quartets Op. 95 (1810) [22.18], Op. 131 (1826) [38.01] and Op. 133 (1826) [16.52]
CHANDOS CHAN 10268 [77.24]
Volume 4: String Quartets Op. 127 (1824) [37.22], Op. 130 (1826) [42.11]
CHANDOS CHAN 10292 [79.39]
Volume 5: String Quartet No. 15 Op. 132 (1825) [46.13], String Quartet No. 16 Op. 135 (1826) [26.24]
CHANDOS CHAN 10304 [72.48]
Volume 6: Quartets 1 - 6, Op. 18 (1798 - 1801) [31.44] No. 2 [24.01] No. 3 [26.12] No. 4 [24.41] No. 5 [32.14] No. 6 [28.03]
CHANDOS CHAN 10381(3) [55.58 + 51.06 + 60.30]
Borodin Quartet (2005): Ruben Aharonian (violin); Andre Abramenkov (violin); Igor Naidin (viola); Valentin Berlinsky (cello)
rec. Small Hall, and Great Hall, Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, 2003 - 2006.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.



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 [{Opp 127-133}1958 monophonic ADD] Testament SBT 3082
Alban Berg Quartet, {Opp 18, 130-133}, EMI 7243 5 69793 2 1; et al.
Talich Quartet [ADD] Calliope CAL 9635, et al.

When I heard my first volume of this set (No. 4) I was very impressed, but thought they couldn’t possibly keep up this level of quality through the whole cycle, and warned readers accordingly. Now that I have heard the full set, I can only say I am unexpectedly overwhelmed. I have never enjoyed this music so much. I have never appreciated this music so much. I never expected, ever again in my life, to put on a set of the Opus 18 Quartets and sit for nearly three hours on the edge of my seat wondering what was coming next, as though I had never heard them before.

This has at once become my most cherished set of these quartets. Throughout this set of 8 CDs there is not a single note that is not exactly where it should be, from the heart as well as from the head. True, the Vegh quartet get more frenzy in the finale of No. 8, but their tone is steely, the recording 1956 monophonic; an experience never to be missed, but perhaps not to be repeated too often. The Hollywood quartet are sweet and rhapsodic in No. 14, but perhaps a little too sweet; perhaps there isn’t that much there apart from sweetness. The Talich quartet also play with great intelligence and drama, but their instruments, their technique, their recording, are not nearly the equal of this set. The Guarnari quartet [ADD] were my previous overall favorite set, but the Russians feel everything, and can make us feel it, just that much deeper, with just that little bit more beauty, in digital sound. Also, in comparison, the Guanarians’ dynamics seem a little exaggerated. The Alban Berg quartet present us with a magnificent traditional Viennese-German aesthetic, brilliant technique, gentle lyricism, and are also closely and brilliantly recorded; but there remains more than a whiff of Prussian grit and steel here and there. If it has been said that Beethoven encompassed the whole world in his music, Russia is an important part of that world, and the contribution from Russia is not merely welcome, but maybe essential. We remember that some of these quartets are dedicated to Count Rasoumovsky; Beethoven was not unaware of the Russian soul, and might even have envied it. In sum, this Borodin Quartet performance has you singing along and stamping your foot in time from the first to the last, weeping — but with dry eyes, occasionally laughing out loud, awestruck at the singing tone, the brilliance, accuracy, and agility of the phrasing. Many times in my mind I compared Aharonian’s playing with Heifetz’s playing, and Heifetz didn’t always come out the winner. When it’s all over you want to run up on stage and give each of the players a Russian bear-hug, you feel you have lived years of your lives together.

As an experiment I listened to three different performances of the Grosse Fuge, Op 133, one right after the other, the most objective and least sentimental of all the works. The upper parts were played much alike, but in the cello part there were great differences.

Put this set in your changer, set it on random, push play, and whatever comes out of the speaker will knock your socks off. Not merely brilliance, but consistent brilliance. Whoever thought Beethoven could sound like this? But now that we know, others will be held to this standard. I suspect a number of distinguished sets of this music will be removed from the market shortly.

For my money the best set of Beethoven quartets ever produced. No matter who else you like, you must have this one, too. I’m sorry if I am boring you with superlatives, but I call ‘em as I see ‘em. Buy this set; you’ll thank me.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 

 



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