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
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 Beethovens
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
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
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