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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No.6 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1798-1800) [24:38]
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1822, 1824-25) [37:46]
Henschel Quartet
rec. December 6-9, 2004, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, German Republic DDD
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS 82876 63996 2 [62:55]


Selected comparisons:

Opus 18/6
Lindsays ASV DCA 1113
Quatuor Mosaïques Naïve E 8899
Fine Arts Quartet EVEREST EVC 9051/52
Alban Berg Quartett (Live) EMI 5 62778 2

Opus 127
Hagen Quartet DG 477 5705
Kodaly Quartet NAXOS 8.550563

The Henschel Quartet first came to my attention with a very fine performance of 2 Schubert Quartets, followed by their highly praised Mendelssohn cycle (both on Arte Nova). Volume 3 was reviewed in 2005.

Now they are adventuring into Beethoven and whilst I would enjoy these performances live; the competition is so great and there are disappointments that it is difficult not to be slightly underwhelmed at first. It is interesting that they are embarking on a Beethoven set as Arte Nova already boast a set by “The Alexander Quartet” (Arte Nova Classics: 74321-63637-2) which I look forward to reviewing soon. I notice that Michael Cookson reviewed this CD 18 months ago yet it is only now being covered in the main music magazines! 

Op. 18/6 starts with some tempo problems in the unforgiving first movement. I’ve heard a first rate quartet come unstuck live in this piece and here they seem rushed. The Henschel’s tempo is similar to the “Fine Arts” but the American quartet seems more able to cope! The “Authentic” Quatuor Mosaïques in their wonderful “non acidic” performance take over a minute longer and the music is all the better for it. The problem with this work is that it is still “early” but has the worst challenges in that the Op. 18 are the hardest for string players to perform and they look forward to those intricate “later” quartets. In the second Lindsay’s travail they are also fast in the beginning of this movement but seem much more of a piece than the Henschels. Things settle down later on and the slow movement gets deeper into the music whilst still on the speedy side. Interestingly the finale which directly points to the “late” quartet’s texture is at 8’11” adjacent to the Fine Arts 7’55” and Lindsay’s 8’24”, but it’s the latter group who seem to be getting more to the heart of the music. A cousin of mine refused to hear the Lindsays because she reckoned they were “too rough” but I feel they were in the spirit of the Busch who sadly did not record this piece. 

Op. 127 starts off well although some sniffing doesn’t help! The playing in this generally demanding quartet is fine; for example I’d be thrilled to hear this live, especially the Adagio ma non troppo and finale. This though is a CD and even at budget price the listener needs a deeper and less superficial - to my ears - rendition. The Kodaly on Naxos at similar cost seem to provide a fuller performance and is coupled with Op. 59/3. The Kodaly’s adagio at a slightly faster tempo nonetheless seems to convey more of Beethoven’s anguish which permeates as a constant though not constantly throughout these late masterpieces. Turning to the Hagen at full price finds a different class of playing with power and knowledge “behind the notes” seemingly very tangible. With the Henschels I was impressed by fine playing but don’t think they are quite ready to inhabit the sound-world of late Beethoven which is so much more than just the notes. The Henschels show you the world but the Hagens draw you into it which may risk accusations of pretentiousness but is one of the finest examples of art mankind has produced.

As I stated at the outset the Henschels are entering an extremely competitive field and they remain a very bright prospect but even at budget price there is so much choice. This is a good disc and in isolation very enjoyable and stimulating; the harsh fact remains that at the moment I prefer the Lindsays and the Hagens and for example the earlier, 1980s Lindsays set of all 16 quartets (8 CDs Resonance RSB 801) can be bought for around £20 if you shop around! I look forward to hearing more from the Henschels but suggest they might leave Beethoven for a while. 

David R Dunsmore

see also Review by Michael Cookson



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