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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
String Quartet No. 8, Op. 59 No. 2 in e (1806) [39.21]
String Quartet No. 9, Op. 59 No. 3 in C [30.48]
Brodsky Quartet: (Andrew Haveron, Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello).
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK, 12 November 2005. DDD
Notes in English. Photos of artists, picture of composer.
BRODSKY RECORDS BRD 3502 [70.48]


Comparison recordings:
Borodin Quartet [2004] Chandos CHAN 10191 and 10178
Végh Quartet [1952 mono AAD] Music and Arts CD 1084 disks 3 and 4
Guarneri Quartet [1968 ADD] BMG RCA 28765 57042 disk 4
 
Recently I exhausted my store of superlatives, indeed perhaps even the language’s store of superlatives, on the new digital Borodin Quartet complete recording of the Beethoven series (see review). Now here I have a new disk in digital sound of two of Beethoven’s most popular quartets performed by one of the most popular and acclaimed of modern British quartets.
 
There is, of course, no right or wrong way to play these quartets, at least not when we are considering artists of this caliber. While the Borodins play with intense concentration and drama, the Brodskys play with grace and polish. In Quartet No. 8, the Borodin find much more to investigate and take five and a half minutes, that is fourteen percent, longer to play it. Considering the insanely fast finale (allegro molto) of Quartet No. 9, a tempo upon which everyone agrees, the Borodins are still 7 percent longer in performing this quartet.
 
After repeated listening it finally dawned on me what it is about this recording that disturbs me. If you were unfamiliar with the Beethoven quartets and I had just played for you some of the very last ones, and then played this disk and told you this was op. 159, instead of op. 59, you would find nothing here to say me wrong. These performances represent a retrospective look by Beethoven at his early music. Not having heard the other disks in this series, and I assume that it is a series, I assume that there will be a uniformity of approach to all the quartets from the vantage point of the last quartets, a journey viewed entirely in terms of its destination, a sex life viewed entirely in terms of marriage and family with no thought to all the adventures that might occur along the way. These performances deprive Beethoven of his adolescence.
 
Very specifically what I admire about the Borodin Quartet performances is that they take each musical moment as unique and explore it in terms of what it represents. They utilize their familiarity with earlier and later Beethoven quartets to evaluate that moment, not to subordinate it to the greater whole. Thus they are able to keep from first to last, from Op. 18 to Op. 135, a sense of progress and exploration, the excited sense of discovery moment by moment. Beethoven gets a chance to grow up at his own pace and we get a chance to participate.
 
The second movement of the Quartet No. 9, marked Andante con mono quasi allegretto, is one of the most remarkable movements Beethoven ever wrote. If one is to derive an image from the music, and one is entitled to do that with Beethoven, especially middle period Beethoven, the introductory cello pizzicato notes could represent church bells. Then the upper strings come in with what might be a distant anguished funeral song, at which the pizzicato cello notes speed up, giving a feeling of arhythmic rapid heartbeat; and then the tolling of the bell continues. The wrenchingly anguished mood continues in the upper strings, the 6/8 tempo keeping a funeral march beat throughout. There is a change to major mode, brief reflections on happier times, then a reprise of the dirge scene. This is a moment of intense drama, some of the most tragic music ever written, and practically no amount of dramatic shaping of this section is too much. There are persistent moments of irony; they do not dissipate the tragic mood, but propel us back into it. While Schoenberg formed most of his esthetic from the last quartets of Beethoven, Verklaerte Nacht springs directly from this movement of No. 9.
 
On the contrary, perhaps one could argue that the drama is all in the notes and that merely playing them off in tempo with no attempt to exaggerate the dramatic images is what Beethoven intended, for there is a surface integrity which would be obscured if too much attention it paid to deeper structures. The Brodkys steam on through keeping a silky surface. The Borodins explore the dramatic images vividly. The Végh quartet achieves intense steely tension while keeping all forward motion. The Guarneris adopt a middle path using dynamics more than texture to highlight dramatic shapes.
 
The Brodsky Quartet did something unusual when in the late 1990s first violin player Michael Thomas was replaced by Andrew Haveron — unusual in that the first violinist is usually the director/dictator of a string quartet. That a quartet would change first violinists and continue without a drastic change in personality is testimony to the collective and collaborative style of their music-making. Michael Thomas apparently was the one who worked in close association with Elvis Costello and collaborated with him writing the popular songs which the quartet performed. One commentator hilariously mistook this Michael Thomas for the Michael Tilson Thomas who is a pianist and music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
 
Of course, the Borodin Quartet has changed first violinists three times, and in fact only the cellist has been with the group since its founding in the late 1950s.
 
Paul Shoemaker
 

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