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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Complete String Quartets

CD 1
String Quartet No. 1 in F major Op. 18 No. 1 (1798-1800) [28:53]
String Quartet No. 5 in A major Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800) [28:21]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 2 in G major Op. 18 No. 2 (1798-1800) [24:59]
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major Op. 18 No. 6 (1798-1800) [27:00]
CD 3
String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800) [27:24]
String Quartet No. 4 in C minor Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800) [25:15]
CD 4
String Quartet No. 7 in F major Op. 59 Rasumovsky No. 1 (1805-06) [39:59]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major Op. 74 ‘Harp’ (1809) [31:02]
CD 5
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor Op 59. Rasumovsky No. 2 (1805-06) [40:07]
String Quartet No. 9 in C major Op. 59 Rasumovsky No. 3 (1805-06) [32:16]
CD 6
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op. 95 ‘Serioso’(1810-11) [21:14]
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major Op. 127 (1823-24) [37:50]
CD 7
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major Op. 130 (1825-26) [42:41]
Grosse Fuge in B flat major Op. 133 (1825-26) [17:40]
CD 8
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 131 (1826) [39:27]
String Quartet No. 16 in F major Op. 135 (1826) [25:05]
CD 9
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132 (1825) [48:44]
Alexander Quartet (Ge-Fang Yang, Frederick Lifsitz (violins), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
rec. Belvedere, California, 1996-97. DDD
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS ANO 636370 [9 CDs: 58:10 + 52:57 + 52:41 + 71:07 + 72:28 + 60:03 + 60:17 + 65:31 + 48:44]
Experience Classicsonline

I must admit to having a weak spot for box sets. Admittedly, you are unlikely to have the best of everything when having an indiscriminate collection of ‘the complete’ anything by just one ensemble, but at least you usually have the benefit of sonic consistency and soon gain an ear for where the musicians are coming from.

This set of the Beethoven String Quartets was initially released by Arte Nova on single discs during the 1990s. I was intrigued by the photo on the box of this 2006 re-release, and, with no mention made of it in the documentation I asked Sandy Wilson the cellist if he knew anything about it. As it often turns out with the subsequent exploitation of earlier releases, the Alexander Quartet had nothing to do with the reissue of these recordings, though they did have input into the selection of the distinctive artwork for the original discs [example left].

It would have been nice to have heard some juicy tale about how this new cover showed the way they had left the recording studio after completing the set, with the inclusion of a boat in the space being part of some kind of riotous rider for recording Beethoven. As it is, the boat appears on all nine discs and twice inside the booklet as well as on the cover, though its relationship to Beethoven’s quartets remains an enigma – which is perhaps the intention. In any case, the Alexander Quartet are in fact working on a new cycle of these same works to be released on the Foghorn Classics label, one which already carries their complete Shostakovich cycle recorded at the American Academy of Arts & Letters, which you will soon also be able to find on these pages.

The California-based Alexander String Quartet was the first American quartet to win London’s International String Quartet Competition, and since the 1980s they have had a successful international concert career. While the budget credentials of this Arte Nova box is beyond doubt, these recordings are most certainly still serious contenders in a market which is well stocked, but can always use decent low price alternatives to those such as the Kodaly Quartet on Naxos, and the excellent but now elderly Guarneri Quartet. My own comparison has been that of the Medici Quartet on Nimbus, which was a ‘limited edition’ in 1994 but still seems to be available at a comparable price.

The Medici Quartet has the advantage of the gorgeously rich but chamber music-friendly acoustic of The Maltings in Snape, but the sound quality for the Alexander Quartet is also very good. It will be the Libran in me, but as so often with this kind of comparison I find myself liking different aspects of each performance in more or less equal measure – sometimes, but not in this case, ending up with no clear winner. Both quartets have the measure of Beethoven’s historic transformation, beginning with the more Haydn orientated Op.18 set. The Medici Quartet are if anything the more romantic in approach, softening and broadening the lines without losing too much of the music’s rhythmic drive. The Alexander Quartet digs a little deeper, the slightly closer sound revealing a little more of their inner articulation, their ensemble seeming that bit tighter and more punchy, but in turn giving us more glimpses of the later Beethoven rather than relaxing into the more classical idiom.

Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets appeared only five years after his Op.18, but much water had passed under his incredibly creative bridge in this period. The Medici set has the added bonus of the Quintet Op.29, but while they relish these more daring works with gusto, I prefer the Alexander Quartet’s greater sense of lyrical shape and more immediate impact with the dynamic and dramatic contrasts in these remarkable pieces. They also have the advantage of greater accuracy in terms of intonation, something which I hadn’t noticed so much with the Medici Quartet until being put back to back with this newcomer.

The middle string quartets could cover a chapter of their own. One of my own past favourites in this repertoire has been the scruffy but ever-reliable Melos Quartet on DG, but here we enter a different relative price class. The intense and compact power of the String Quartet Op.95 is well conveyed by the Alexander Quartet, with Beethoven’s exaggerated dynamic and accent markings being accurately followed. The Medici quartet are also good in this ‘bridge’ work, which in a sense dissolves the achievements of the Op.59 quartets and anticipates the late quartets in some of its extremes. I find the Medici’s less well integrated than the Alexander Quartet, with some weaknesses exposed in the tricky solo lines in the 1st violin, and a generally less tight sense of ensemble.

If the Op.59 works were said to have "doomed the amateur string quartet", the late quartets elevated the genre into entirely new realms. Beethoven’s Op.130 quartet was originally intended with the Grosse Fuge as its finale, and while the Alexander recording places this alternative usefully at the conclusion of the Op.130 quartet, the Medicis have it in place as the sixth movement, following it with Beethoven’s later replacement. Wading through these incredibly intense and serious works with an analytical ear is not always a duty which fills your friendly reviewer with joy, but I found listening to the Alexander Quartet’s recording to be much more of a pleasure than a chore. I find the Grosse Fuge a tough nut at the best of times, but found myself drawn into this performance with fresh ears – if there is one thing the Alexander quartet does well is produce convincing and dramatic counterpoint, with the layering of each voice as clear as the advancing and receding shades on a Mark Rothko painting, but with all the restfulness of a Jackson Pollock, just to confuse the analogy. The Medici plays well in this difficult music, but the whole effect is at the same time lighter in texture and more laboured, the difference between fugue subjects and secondary voices being that bit less well defined. I even where the most complex moments of Op.130 are sometimes a little less felicitous I find myself convinced by the Alexander Quartet at this price class, and would certainly recommend it over the Nimbus set, filled with nice sounds as it is.

One aspect where I do sense a certain lack is in expressing that enigmatic sense of mystery we sometimes have in the late quartets. I found myself strangely unmoved by that eloquent opening to the String Quartet in C# Op.131 for instance. This however is a minor gripe. This quartet’s ability to sustain the long lines in the brief and strange Adagio of Op.131 and the Lento assai of Op.135 for instance create wonderful ear food. This is a bargain set, and there can be little hesitation in adding it to one’s collection – assuming it’s not overstocked with Beethoven boxes already. There are better all-round sets available, but not, I suspect, at this budget price. I’ll be intrigued to see how the Alexander Quartet does in their new recording, but I’ll also bet it won’t be as cheap.

Dominy Clements


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