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CD: Crotchet

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets
No. 11 in F minor; Op. 95 “Serioso” (1810) [19:59]
No. 12 in E flat Op. 127 (1824-25) [33:20]
No. 13 in B flat Op. 130 (1825-26 includes Grosse Fuge Op. 133) [57:17]
No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 131 (1826) [37:02]
No. 15 in A minor Op. 132 (1825) [43:36]
No. 16 in F Op. 135 (1826) [24:03].
Colorado Quartet (Julie Rosenfeld; Deborah Lydia Redding (violins); Marka Gustavsson (viola); Diane Chaplin (cello))
rec. Sosnoff Theatre of the Richard B. Fisher Centre for Performing Arts, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, May 2004-December  2006.
PARNASSUS PACD96042/4 [3 CDs: 77:26 + 70:29 + 67:46]
Experience Classicsonline

I confess to being sceptical about this set. Presentation tends to be drab, and my cynical side said that the cover’s boast of “complete performances with all marked repeats” was just to net sales in compensation for mediocre performances.
This is a set that brought me huge amounts of joy. Being proved so conclusively wrong in this fashion is what reviewing is all about – after all, I am sure many collectors may bypass this set on the shelves (if anyone shops in physical premises these days that is) in favour of the more accepted versions (ABQ in their earliest EMI version or the DVD live performances, Busch Quartet on a GROC, Quartetto Italiano …). Do give this a try, though. The integrity of these accounts, plus the superlative but unshowy recording by the experienced Judith Sherman means this could stand alone as a single version. The recording is on the dry side, appropriately enough for interpretations that steadfastly refuse to wallow. I only own one other Parnassus disc – string quartets by Villa-Lobos, Hindemith and Quincy Porter, reviewed here by both Jonathan Woolf and Rob Barnett – but am intrigued by the catalogue. Alongside rare Richter, there is Gregorian Chant: The Early Interpreters (recordings 1928-1936), something I already long to hear, plus recordings by Grumiaux and Starker.
The three discs are laid out thusly: CD1, Opp. 95 and 130 (with both finales); CD2, Opp. 127 and 131; CD3, Opp. 132 and 135.
The Colorado Quartet attacks the Allegro con brio of the F minor resolutely. The documentation claims that Op. 95 was recorded in a single day, and the spontaneity reflects this, particularly in the intense Allegretto ma non troppo second movement. The sheer energy of the scamperings of the finale is to marvel at and underlines the fact that for the Colorado Quartet nothing in late Beethoven is going to stretch their techniques. A similar case to the Alban Berg Quartet, one might argue, except that the ABQ can sometimes revel in their own expertise. Never here.
Everyone, I imagine, has their favourite late Beethoven Quartet. Myself, I go for the great Op. 130. Rightly, the Colorado puts the Grosse Fuge in place as the correct finale, with Beethoven’s “adjustment” - the significantly briefer, slighter alternative he wrote - as the final track of the disc. The Presto second movement scampers magnificently, true chamber music in terms of ensemble and sheer listening to each other, all at high velocity. There is a suave and knowing touch to the “Alla danza tedesca”, taken slightly slower than the norm to emphasise its inherent profundity in such as way as it simultaneously contrast and connects with the heavenly Cavatina. Beethoven’s “Adagio molto” requirement is adhered to, resulting in a performance that threatens to still time itself. The sheer rawness of the opening of the finale (Grosse Fuge) is entirely apposite to its context. This is  a gritty, sinewy reading that seems to delight in Beethoven’s stretching of limits – limits of form, expression and technical possibility. The ghostly accompanying parts at around the six-seven minute mark, under a single high violin line, is one memorable moment among many. Perhaps the trills around nine minutes in do not buzz with full late Beethovenian energy but this remains a wonderful account, true to Beethoven’s spirit. Somehow, the replacement finale does not sound too trite if one plays the CD through to compare finales.
The easy fluency of the first movement of Op. 127 is light-footedly caught by the Colorado Quartet here. But this is to be no lightweight reading, as the beautiful, extended (12:38) Adagio attests. That interior world here links directly to that of Op.  127’s partner on this disc, Op. 131, in particular the latter’s contrapuntally-obsessed opening Adagio and the Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile. Strong discipline is once more in evidence for the Presto. This is not the greatest Op. 131 I have heard but it remains a fine version. It doesn’t ignite quite like Op. 130 does, though, and the recording means that the very final chords emerge rather harshly.
The final disc twins the mighty A minor with the briefer Op. 135. The A minor, of course, holds the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, a psychological clearing-house. The first movement prepares the territory mixing exquisite webs of sound with more gritty intent but there is no doubt that the Song of Thanksgiving is the emotional centre here. The crisply articulated Alla marcia seems to hold its secrets close to its chest. Finally, the relatively short Op. 135. If the Colorado Quartet miss to some extent the playfulness of the first movement, their razor-sharp ensemble compensates in the ensuing Vivace. Although only just over seven minutes, the Lento assai contains whole worlds of emotion, balanced by the ease of expression (and performance) of the finale.
An admirable set in almost every way.
Colin Clarke


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