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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Middle String Quartets
CD 1
String Quartet No.7 in F, Op.59/1 (1806) [39:58]
String Quartet in F, Op.14/1 (arr. of Piano Sonata No.9, 1798-9) [13:03]
CD 2
String Quartet No.8 in e minor, Op.59/2 (1806) [34:37]
String Quartet No.9 in C, Op.59/3 (1806) [30:38]
CD 3
String Quartet No.10 in E-flat, Op.74, ‘Harp’ (1809) [30:44]
String Quartet No.11 in f minor, Op.95, ‘Serioso’ (1810) [21:01]
Wihan Quartet
rec. live, Convent of St Agnes, Prague, 18 October 2007, 8 November 2007, 6 December 2007, 17 January 2008 and 7 February2008. DDD.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6109 [3 CDs: 54:04 + 65:26 + 51:47]

Experience Classicsonline




This completes the series of Beethoven Quartets recorded live by the Wihan Quartet and issued under special licence by Nimbus. Their concerts mixed works from different periods but Nimbus have chosen to issue them more logically in sets of the early, middle-period and late works. The order in which they were performed live is listed on their website:

18 Oct 2007 op.18/1,op.14/1,op.59/1
8 Nov 2007 op.18/2,op.74,op.131
6 Dec 2007 op.18/3,op.59/3,op.127
17 Jan 2008 op.18/4,op.95,op.132
7 Feb 2008 op.18/5,op.135,op.59/2
13 Mar 2008 op.18/6,op.133,op.130

I reviewed the Early Quartets (NI6105, 2 CDs - see review), as also did Colin Clarke (see review), and Patrick Waller reviewed the Late Quartets (NI6100-2, 3 CDs - see review).

Surveying the available versions of the Middle Quartets in my April, 2009, Download Roundup, I recommended versions of String Quartets 7 and 9 by the Borodin Quartet (Chandos CHAN10178), Nos. 8 and 10 by the Lindsay Quartet (ASV CDDCA1115), Nos.10 and 11 by the Tokyo Quartet (Harmonia Mundi HMU80 7460) and Nos. 11, 13 and 14 by the Borodin Quartet (Chandos CHAN10269). I also mentioned the versions of Nos.7-10 by the Takács Quartet; I should have given that set more prominence, since it now seems to me the most secure recommendation of all (Decca 470 8472, 2 CDs or download in good mp3 sound from passionato.com).

The Takács Quartet commenced their cycle of complete recordings with the Middle Quartets in 2002, explaining that these works are extraordinarily strong statements and that Beethoven was taking a risk with them. Listening to their recordings it is quite apparent that this was no off-the-cuff remark: the relationship between the Middle and Late Quartets is stressed here to an extent that I have never heard in other performances.

Comparing the Wihans with those recommendations, I have to say again, as I did in the case of the Op.18 Quartets, that they stand up well, often very well, but ultimately wouldn’t come top of my list. If, in the Op.18 set, I missed the last degree of Beethoven’s out-Haydning of Haydn, the lack is a little more of a problem in the Op.59 set. Hard as it is for us today to understand, contemporaries found these works difficult, not only in the technical sense but also hard to comprehend. Though Beethoven employs Russian themes in two of the quartets in honour of the Russian ambassador who had commissioned them, Count Razumovsky doubtless found them as ‘profound in conception and admirably written but not generally comprehensible’ as did the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung’s Viennese correspondent.

Greater incomprehension was to come with the Last Quartets, Nos.12-16, of course, but an ideal performance of these middle-period works should be prepared to offset beautiful playing against a strong sense of drama. The Wihan performances of the Op.59 works don’t quite achieve that: they remind me more of Symphony No.4, which bears the opus number immediately following, Op.60, rather than of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Op.55, which immediately preceded them. That doesn’t mean that I shan’t play and enjoy these performances - after all, I find myself in the mood to hear the Fourth Symphony, one of my favourites, though usually less highly regarded than its odd-numbered companions, at least as often as I listen to the ‘Eroica’ or the Fifth Symphony.

The Op.14 Quartet is something of an oddity - Beethoven’s own re-working of his Piano Sonata No.10 but not a mere arrangement; carefully rescored by Beethoven himself, it is well worth hearing and it receives a good performance - perhaps the best of the set. The Lindsays include Op.14/1 with Op.18/4 and 5 on budget-price ASV CDDCA1112, and the Leipziger Streichquartett, like the Wihans, combine it with Op.59/1 (Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG30707072). I believe that these are the only other currently available performances.

The Wihan performance of Op.59/1 neatly characterises the whole set. There is strength as well as elegance in their playing and I was often convinced by the interpretation but, in the final analysis, the sheer beauty of the playing wins over the toughness to an extent which I thought came down just on the wrong side of this balancing act.

Op.59/2 is the toughest nut to crack of the three. Listening to the performance by the Takács Quartet, the pre-echoes of the late quartets are apparent. The Wihan Quartet open their performance promisingly with sharply-articulated chords. This is a good, often very good performance, and the playing of the Wihans, as throughout, is of the highest order. Their account of the mixture of jollity and plaintiveness in the third movement, for example, is very attractive, but overall I missed that last degree of power which the Takács players achieve.

Of the three Op.59 quartets, contemporaries found the third and last the easiest to come to terms with. Misha Donat in the notes suggests that this may have been due partly to Mozartian undertones in the outer movements. It would, therefore, hardly be surprising to find the Wihans most in tune with the mood of this work. Listen to their performance of the third movement, where they combine gemütlichkeit and seriousness in just the right measure.

Like the Takács Quartet, the Wihans manage to accommodate Op.59/2 and Op.59/3 on one CD. Unfortunately, they achieve this (comfortably, in fact, with a total playing time of 65:26 against 72:18 for the Decca CD) not just by adopting tempi generally faster than those of the Takács, but also by omitting some of the repeats.

The third CD couples the ‘Harp’ Quartet, Op.74, with the ‘Serioso’, Op.95. These, too, are very well-played, if again just lacking the last degree of the toughness to be found in the Takács performances. Op.95 is even more a transitional work than the Op.59 Quartets; it stands on the very threshold of the Last Quartets. Significantly, the Decca set includes it with those works and the Takács performance fully justifies that decision. I don’t mean to imply that the Wihan performance is backward-looking; both it and the ‘Harp’ receive very creditable performances, combing lyricism with strength. I’d just have preferred a little more of the strength, but the Wihan performances make perfect sense in their own right.

Since these works were recorded concurrently with the Op.18 and Late Quartets, it’s hardly surprising that the recording has the same qualities as the earlier volumes. It’s as clear and sonorous as the playing, with the violins, especially the leader, prominent in the sound mix. Perhaps the engineers have been more attentive to getting that mix right this time, but the slight over-prominence that I noted before is less in evidence. As before, the only indication of the audience, apart from occasional extraneous noises, comes from the applause at the end. The Takács Quartet recording is sharper and less plush than that accorded to the Wihans; personal tastes may well dictate preferences here.

As with the other volumes, the notes, by Misha Donat, are excellent - a model of informative detail and readability comparable with superb the booklets that Hyperion usually provide with their CDs.

This series marks the Wihans’ second stab at the complete Beethoven quartets; they already had a 10-CD set on the Lotos label. They may have been together for over 20 years, but I don’t think these will be their last words on the subject, though many will feel that the virtues outweigh the reservations. If, as I assume, the set is offered at an attractive price, like the earlier sets, available here on Musicweb at £12 for 2CDs £16 for 3 CDs postage free World-wide , they would make a good bargain. Perhaps now they should record Mozart: Richard Amey described their recent concert performance of K387 as ‘a reading of grace yet with momentum, with apparent spontaneity coupled with control’, which is consistent with my reaction to their Beethoven and rather more in tune with what is needed in Mozart.

The Italian Quartet performances on Philips used to be my benchmark for the Beethoven Quartets ever since I discovered their LPs almost half a century ago. More recently, I find myself turning to the Lindsays (ASV), the Borodin Quartet, whose performances have just been reissued as a complete set by Chandos (CHAN10553, 8 CDs for around £34) and, above all, the Takács Quartet. The Wihans don’t, for me, quite make it into that pantheon but they come closer in the new set than on their earlier releases.

If you are looking for a very competent set of the Middle Quartets, well recorded and offered at a reasonable price, this could very well be just right for you, especially if you wish to include the Op.14 rarity and would like Op.95 included with the middle-period works rather than with the Late Quartets. All in all, however, I would prefer to sacrifice Op.14 and go for the 2-CD Decca Takács set, deferring Op.95 to be purchased with the late Quartets, where the Takács performers are, again, my preferred option in a very competitive field. Those looking for an even better bargain than the Wihans’ CDs might like to check out the DVD set of their Beethoven performances, available at an even more generous price direct from Musicweb-international.

Brian Wilson 

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Early String Quartets (1798-1800)
CD 1
String Quartet in F, Op.18/1 [28:59]
String Quartet in G, Op.18/2 [23:59]
String Quartet in D, Op.18/3 [24:39]
CD 2
String Quartet in c minor, Op.18/4 [23:28]
String Quartet in A, Op.18/5 [28:47]
String Quartet in B-flat, Op.18/6 [24:33]
Wihan Quartet
rec. live, Convent of St Agnes, Prague, 18 October, 8 November, 6 December, 2007, 17 January, 7 February, 13 March 2008. DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6105 [77:43 + 76:44] £12 postage Paid

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] £16 postage-paid

 


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