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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130 (1826) [41.59]
String Quartet in C sharp minor Op. 131 (1826) [37.20]
Shanghai Quartet
rec. live, Grand Hall, Royal Castle, Warsaw, 4 April 2004. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 158-2 DDD [79.54]

The Shanghai Quartet is new to me but on the strength of this live recording they deserve to be better known. Here they tackle two of the "late quartets". These are works that divide music lovers. For some they are the "holy grail" of chamber music, others regard them as pretentious and unfathomable. I love them but I regard them as not for every day and reserve them for certain moods. These performances were recorded live at a Beethoven festival in 2004; the first quartet began at 12 noon as the notes advise!

Op. 130 is unique among the sixteen quartets for having two final movements. The original 15 minute "Grosse Fuge" which followed the "Cavatina" was given a separate opus number 133 and Beethoven substituted a very different movement, written after Op. 135. Some quartets play both endings, giving the listener a choice, but here we have just the later. This allows enough room for Op. 131. I believe this is a very rare coupling

This sounded right from the beginning. There is a lot of cello-dominated music in this piece and the sonority of the quartet is beautifully picked up. There is an extra frisson because of the live recording but apart from a slightly disconcerting clock-like sound at the start of the third movement the audience is very quiet. The first movement has what I call one of Beethovenís argumentative conversations. The Shanghai dispatch the second movement with brio, helped by being live. The Cavatina has a hymn-like quality without becoming overtly sentimental. The finale is played with real aplomb and brings this performance to a splendid ending and justified applause. As comparisons, I played the Budapest Quartet recorded live in 1960 and here you are much more aware of the live setting. Both these recordings however are overshadowed by the Busch Quartet from their 1942 Sony performance; this does reach parts other quartets canít! Letís be fair though and say that the Shanghai is splendid and I will be returning to this disc often, despite having over twenty versions!

Op. 131: David Wright in his review of the Quartetto Italiano "Late Quartets" (Philips 464-684-2, which I will be reviewing soon) expresses extreme reservations about this piece which has seven continuous movements, some only two minutes duration. Itís a work that always has something new to say and Iíve enjoyed particularly performances by the Busch, Hungarian and the Lindsays. Whilst it is not an easy quartet itís marvellous and very well performed here. In this quartet the medium is taken to new limits; this is light years from Haydnís Op. 20s of fifty years previously.

The quartet begins slowly and there are two Allegros each shorter than a minute. The key movement is the middle one. Versions vary from 12 to 17 minutes; here itís 13. There are so many changes that you never know what is coming next. As a live recording this is splendid playing and I felt the Shanghai were totally inside the music. Yes of course I will continue to play other versions but will be delighted to return to this. The disconcerting cello resonances in the fourth movement (around 10 minutes) are truly disturbing and are followed by a painful tranquillity. The Presto which I love, must have raised eyebrows in 1826. This is followed by a poignant adagio. The finale turns and twists but is much better played than I can describe!

In conclusion, I would recommend this disc to lovers of late Beethoven and those looking for somewhere to start. Comparisons are not really worthwhile as it is a very rare coupling and on its own merits deserves a good listen!

David R Dunsmore


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