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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Late String Quartets
CD 1
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [36:59]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [35:43]
CD 2
Große Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (1825-26) [15:28]
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [36:40]
CD 3
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [42:14]
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [25:10]
Alban Berg Quartet: (Günter Pichler, violin; Gerhard Schulz, violin; Thomas Kakuska, viola; Valentin Erben, cello)
rec. live performances, July 1989, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria. DDD
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 4768202 [3 CDs: 72:47 + 52:13 + 67:29]


Since their foundation in 1971 in Vienna the world famous Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) has been prolific in the recording studio; recipients of over thirty prestigious international awards. In 2005 the quartet suffered the anguish of the death of their violist Thomas Kakuska who played on this collection of Beethoven’s ‘Late String Quartets’. The ABQ have now secured the services of violist Isabel Charisius. Although not afraid to explore the more adventurous and challenging with works from composers such as Berio, Lutoslawski and Schnittke the ABQ are renowned for their sterling interpretations of the Austro-German Classical and Romantic masters: Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.
 
Clearly not everyone will share the same opinion as the producers at EMI Classics as to which recordings warrant inclusion as a ‘Great Recording of the Century’. Everyone will have their own preferences and I have read several reviewers disputing the merits of various chosen recordings. There can, however, be only a very small number of music-lovers who are unable to appreciate the remarkable standard of performance on offer here from the ABQ.
 
There is no doubting the monumental and often daunting nature of Beethoven’s remarkable late string quartets. Eminent music writer David Ewen expressed the view that, “Here we confront 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.” Despite all the scholarly research undertaken over the years I note that there is still some disagreement on the actual composition dates of some of these scores.
 
The first work on the set is the four movement String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127. This was dedicated to Prince Nikolas Galitzin and first performed in March 1825. The ABQ are splendidly paced in the opening movement and right from the opening bars one becomes aware of their impeccable security of ensemble. A sense of the divine and the sublime is communicated by the ABQ in the adagio and in the easygoing scherzo they never press unnecessarily providing an apt spontaneity. The finale is alert and robust with conspicuous rhythmic control.
 
From 1825-26 the String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 cast in six movements is again dedicated to Prince Galitzin. The first performance of this score was in Vienna in March 1826 with the Große Fuge used as its original final movement. It was performed in April 1827 with its present final movement; Beethoven’s last ever composition for string quartet. In the opening movement the ABQ provide steadfast control throughout Beethoven’s myriad emotional states and in the short presto I sensed a striking aloof aggression in their playing. The Austrians make sense of the contrasting demands of the unusual andante and in the short movement alla danza tedesca they provide a swirling dance-like nature to the music. There is soulful playing of a highly reverential nature in the cavatina and I especially enjoyed the interpretation of the march-like figures at 3:47-4:23 (CD1, track 9). The tempo in the finale, allegro is well selected and one senses relentless probing beneath Beethoven’s surface veneer.

On the second CD the opening work is the Große Fuge, Op. 133 which was composed 1825-26 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. The Große Fuge was originally the final movement of the String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130. The ABQ communicate their understanding of Beethoven’s bewildering sound-world with a robust intensity that is strikingly dramatic. The remarkable combination of Beethoven and the ABQ leaves the listener exhausted.
 
Completed in 1826 and cast in seven movements the String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 was dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim. In the opening movement the ABQ are extremely serious and provide a feeling of intense yearning. One feels the absolute concentration and open-hearted penetration of the Viennese ensemble in the second movement allegro with playing of affectionate tenderness in the very short allegro moderato. In the lengthy andante the ABQ bring a compassionate vulnerability that they unfold with telling fluency. In the presto they are exciting and bold yet always in control. I was struck by their well thought out tempos in the brief adagio where nothing is forced and everything seems fresh and astonishingly vital. In the final allegro there is alert playing of authority and of commitment.
 
The third and final disc commences with the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 composed in 1825 and dedicated to Prince Nikolas Galitzin. The premiere was given in November 1825. This is a massive work that plays typically for over forty minutes. The ABQ offer radiant playing of passion and sensibility with Beethoven’s often oppressive and unresolved anxieties fully expressed in the opening movement. I was impressed with their refined, gracious and responsive interpretation in the allegro ma non tanto. There is magisterial playing in the epic slow movement molto adagio where they communicate an inspired solemnity. The Austrians are bright and sparkling in the short alla marcia, assai vivace and they provide a remarkable depth of feeling with playing of great dignity in the finale.
 
The concluding work is the four movement String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. Beethoven dedicated the score to Johann Wolfmayer and the first performance was given in March 1828. In the opening allegretto the ABQ provide determined energy and rhythmic bounce and in the syncopated vivace they convey a fidgety and unsettled character. There is playing of a devout quality in the third movement that provides a sense of serenity in this one of Beethoven’s biggest challenges. In the technically demanding and emotionally draining final movement I was greatly impressed with the ice cool splendour that the Austrians blend with security of control.
 
The ABQ were recorded during live performances in 1989 at the Mozartsaal in Vienna and the digital sound quality is first class. There is enthusiastic audience applause at the end of each work but nothing else to worry about.
 
Over the years there have been many excellent interpretations of these Beethoven masterworks for string quartet from many of the world’s greatest chamber ensembles and many of us have our own favourite version in our collections. In addition to these live 1989 Vienna recordings from ABQ the alternative accounts most prominent in the catalogues are from: the Aeolian on Decca; the Petersen on Capriccio; the New Budapest on Hyperion; the Gabrieli on Decca; the Lindsay on ASV; the Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon and the Italian on Philips. The historical 1932-41 Vienna mono recordings from the Busch Quartet have accumulated countless admirers over the years. It appears that the Busch recordings are still available on Pearl GEMS0053. I have not personally heard the accounts but causing considerable critical attention is the award-winning and top-selling set from the Takács Quartet on Decca 4708492.
 
In addition to these superb live recordings from the ABQ on EMI Classics I have been an admirer of the sets from both the Italian Quartet and the Emerson String Quartets.
 
The Italian Quartet accounts are available on Philips 'Duo' across two volumes 454 711-2 and 454 712-2. Although recorded nearly forty years ago - 1967-69 - in Switzerland they still sound exceptionally fine. The Italians are undoubtedly stylish with exceptional musicianship and that comforting feeling of unity gained from their years of experience. The tempos from the Italians are on the measured side together with a clear and smooth tone which is acknowledged as one of their major assets.
 
The versions from the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 'Trio' 474-341-2 were recorded at the American Academy and Institute of Letters in New York, 1994-95. The Emersons demonstrate awesome energy and a robust character throughout. Displaying a cultivated eye for detail everything seems to fit together so securely. The Emersons have the innate ability to shape each of the quartets with a sure sense of direction in playing of sensitivity balanced with convincing expression.
 
These are truly Great Recordings of the Century. I would be completely content to have these performances of Beethoven’s late string quartets as the only set in my collection.
 
Michael Cookson
 
EMI Great Recordings Of The Century

 



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