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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Late String Quartets

CD 1
String Quartet in E flat Op.127 [35:54]
String Quartet in C# minor Op.131 [38:48]
CD 2
String Quartet in B flat Op.130 (with Grosse Fuge Op.133 as the finale) [46:49]
CD 3
String Quartet in A minor Op.132 [45:29]
String Quartet in F Op.135 [24:59]
Wihan Quartet
rec. Convent of St. Agnes, Prague, 6 December and 8 November 2007 (CD 1), 13 March 2008 (CD 2), 17 January and 7 February 2008 (CD 3). DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6100-2 [3 CDs: 74:45 + 46:49 + 70:32]

Experience Classicsonline



When I was a teenager I had a friend who, unlike me, hated the perfection of studio recordings and was busy amassing recordings of live performances off the radio whilst I was collecting tapes. In those days (mid-1970s), almost everything issued was recorded in the studio but life has changed and now live performances on disc abound, some untouched, others patched up afterwards. Having said that, I suspect that this trend has impacted much less on the string quartet than, say, orchestral music. There are many recordings available which compete with this new set but I am struggling to find one that was recorded live, as this one was.  Apparently it was part of the first complete cycle of Beethoven quartets to be given in the Convent of St. Agnes. The rest of the cycle will follow on disc soon. Applause is retained and I suspect that these recordings are untouched so, if you’re out there Kevin …

This issue also represents something of a departure for Nimbus, it not being a recording that they made themselves (see press release). This is another growing trend in the industry and one that I feel that listeners should welcome since it can be seen as an attempt to defy the commercial argument against making some recordings.

There is no need to say much about the music itself since I would assume that most readers know that these are Beethoven’s last works, written between 1824 and 1826 when he was completely deaf. They pushed back the boundaries of both structure and harmony, having a profound but rarely specific influence on music written thereafter. All Beethoven’s quartets are essential listening but I put these works on several times compared to each time I play the Op.18 series. The serious collector should have multiple versions for it is completely unthinkable to claim that there is one top choice in this repertoire.

In terms of comparisons, my benchmarks are the earlier versions made by the Lindsay Quartet for ASV and the Talich Quartet on Calliope, both recorded about 25-30 years ago. They complement each other perfectly, the former being personal and intense, the latter intimate and slightly understated. The Lindsays are rarely comfortable to listen to in these works – it is hardly comfortable music – and I have a special memory of hearing them play Op.130 in Sheffield in 1984. In those days it was relatively unusual to hear it with the Grosse Fuge as the finale – another thing that has changed. Afterwards the audience piled out of the Crucible studio drained and many of them, including me, bought their recording of it on the spot. In this new set the Wihans opt for the same approach: Beethoven’s first thoughts and, unlike most studio versions, there is no alternative finale option.

The Wihan Quartet is an impressive group and, having reviewed their discs of Smetana and Wolf in 2006, I had high expectations of this set. For the most part, they were met although there are reservations too. These are technically highly assured performances which communicate Beethoven’s vision well and sit somewhere in the general interpretative spectrum between the Lindsay and the Talich. Most of my reservations probably relate to the recording which tends to be a bit close and rarely allows for real pianissimo. In Op.127 only there is a lot of extraneous noise, possibly due a squeaky chair and several loud coughs in slow movement. Quite loud intakes of breath abound and often these seem to be cues so I presume they come from the leader.

The first disc opens with Op.127 and, aside from the distractions already mentioned, I don’t find this as persuasive as the Lindsays, particularly in the first two movements. The first movement marking Maestoso is unusual in a string quartet and the Lindsays really project that. The extended adagio which follows has insufficient dynamic contrasts and certainly fails to finish at pianissimo. The Zemlinsky Quartet’s performance at the Banff international string quartet competition in 2007 which won them second prize will linger longer in my memory than this.

Thereafter things improve considerably. Op.131 follows – an amazing seven-movement work played almost continuously – this is better recorded and highly coherent over its broad arch. Again, I was fortunate enough to hear a superb live performance of this work in Banff about eighteen months ago which won the Tinally Quartet first prize. But the Wihans get to the heart of the matter too and the concentration involved in performing this live shines through. Particularly enjoyable are the lilt they bring to the second movement and the way the central set of variations is held together.

On the second disc comes Op.130 and this is another impressive reading. The second movement Presto goes well at full tilt and the alla tedesca is lovely. I am less sure about the Cavatina – one of Beethoven’s greatest slow movements, where the tempo seems just a little fast for adagio. It is certainly expressive enough but the Lindsays take two minutes more and make it count. There is tremendous attack in the Gross Fuge and the wildness of the landscape is amply conveyed.

The A minor quartet, Op.132 represents the pinnacle in this set. A reading of great breadth and concentration, this performance hangs together seamlessly across a great span. The opening section of the otherworldly central adagio is taken daringly slowly and perfectly balanced against the ensuing andante.

Finally, we come to Op.135, a smaller, structurally more conventional work but a highly challenging one too. The Wihans give a creditable performance but the rather restricted dynamic range is a particular drawback here, because contrasts are so important. In the slow movement, the Lindsays again adopt a slower tempo to great effect and they also bring more anguish to the outbursts at the beginning of the finale.

The issue is well-documented with an excellent essay on the music by Misha Donat.

To conclude full circle, apart from the Kevins of this world, who is this set for? Not those who want perfection certainly but as a complement to one or more studio versions of these life-enhancing works, this deserves consideration. There’s no doubt in my mind that experiencing these works performed live by a top quartet is one of the great musical experiences. How well they transfer to the living room will be a matter of personal taste. To assess that, it should be well worth investigating this modestly priced set.

Patrick C Waller







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