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CD: Buywell

Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
see end of review for details
The Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding (1st violin); Dimity Hall (2nd violin); Irina Morozova (viola); Julian Smiles (cello))
rec. live, 19 August-15 September 2004, Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 3541 [8 CDs: 544:44] 

Experience Classicsonline

Of few composers can it be said that through them, and them alone, the art of music became completely transformed.” David Ewen (The Complete Book of Classical Music. Robert Hale, London (1966) pgs. 288, 336 ISBN: 0 7091 0884 2) 

Following close on the heels of the Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn Classics comes another release of the complete Beethoven string quartets. This time it’s from concert performances by the Goldner Quartet on ABC Classics. We are not told if these recordings have been in storage for the last six years. This notwithstanding, any set of the complete Beethoven quartets is a major achievement and one can only imagine the amount of time and preparation that goes into such a challenging project. The Goldner have an impressive sound quality and the documentation for the set is of a high standard being interesting and informative.

The Goldner String Quartet was formed in 1995 taking the name of Richard Goldner the founder of the original ensemble Musica Viva Australia. The players had played together from 1991 dating back to their days in the Australia Ensemble. They were resident at the University of New South Wales and have occupied principal positions in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Chamber Orchestra. I first became aware of the Goldners with their splendid release of the Szymanowski 2 String Quartets and Stravinsky Concertino, Three Pieces and Double Canon on Naxos 8.554315. 

Beethoven’s early set of string quartets composed 1798-1800 convey an emotional sensitivity and drama of a higher level than those developed by Haydn and Mozart. In 1824 as he began writing his late period quartets and through the last three years of his life Beethoven entered a daring and ground-breaking world of astonishing dynamic contrasts and an extraordinary range of emotions. This is, to musicologist David Ewen, music that, “at times seems to transcend human experience.” 

Throughout the complete quartets I was impressed by the splendid playing of the Goldner: consistently cultivated, natural and unforced. Their intonation and ensemble is also creditable. The Goldner achieve an almost ‘Classical’ feel that I felt was eminently more suitable to the quartets of Haydn and Mozart than to Beethoven who was developing his Romantic style. I wanted a more satisfying musical experience. Especially in the adventurous middle and remarkable late quartets one feels their characterisation is not weighty enough. There’s insufficient penetration to explore the core of the music. I wanted a more searching intensity and spirituality in the slow movements, more brio and punch in the Allegros and increased energy and more demonic force in the Scherzos. Beethoven can take the listener from a sensuous gossamer delicacy to angry hammer-like blows. But not here. The sound world of the Goldners is rather too polite and agreeable. This is all put into context when the Goldner are compared to the finest available complete sets such as the Takács Quartet/Decca, Emerson Quartet/Deutsche Grammophon, Amadeus Quartet/Deutsche Grammophon, Alban Berg Quartet/EMI Classics and the recent 2009 release from the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) on Foghorn Classics.

My benchmark of the complete Beethoven quartets is the series from the Takács Quartet on Decca. The 7 disc set was recorded in 2001-04 at Bristol St. George’s and released on three separate volumes: early quartets 470 848-2; middle quartets 470 847-2 and late quartets 470 849-2. With the advantage of a splendid sound quality the assured Takács play with an impressive momentum, vitality and great intensity. Their dynamics are broad yet their liberal use of vibrato never feels excessive. Perfectly matched, these are coherent performances without ostentation. I was also impressed by the ice cool, vividly clear and well balanced sound. The Decca documentation is excellent too.

In addition I highly rate the recently issued new set of the complete Beethoven string quartets from the Alexander String Quartet who provide a most natural feel to their interpretations. I admired their splendidly matched phrasing together with an intuitive grasp of structure. The dynamics are rarely overstated and their choice of tempi feels just right. The exceptionally clear, if rather dry sound, is closely caught at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC. I made this set one of my 2009 ‘Records of the Year’. The complete 9 disc collection is on Foghorn Classics CD2005. Also available in three separate volumes: the early quartets vol. 1 CD1996; middle quartets vol. 2 CD1999 and late quartets vol. 3 CD2002.

For those just wanting the 5 late Beethoven string quartets and the Große Fuge there are three particular sets that I feel deserve attention. I have especially enjoyed the accounts from the Emerson. They demonstrate awesome energy and robust character. The Emersons were recorded at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, NYC in 1994-95 on Deutsche Grammophon 474-341-2. Their complete Beethoven quartets are available on a 7 disc set on Deutsche Grammophon 447 076-2. Also deserving of praise are the accounts of the late quartets from the Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) who play with great intensity and impeccable security of ensemble. The ABQ were recorded live in 1989 at the Mozartsaal Konzerthaus, Vienna on EMI Classics 4 76820 2. On 7 discs their set of the complete Beethoven quartets is on EMI Classics CZS 5736062.

Among the finest historical performances of the late Beethoven string quartets and Große Fuge I wish to single out the mono accounts from the Busch Quartet on EMI Classics 5 09655 2. The Busch were recorded in mono at the Abbey Road Studios, London and the Liederkranz Hall, NYC in 1932-37. Although these are successfully digitally remastered to a standard exceptional for their age the Busch is not a set that I often play these days for pleasure. The major stumbling block is the 70 year old mono sound. It’s clearly no match for modern digital recordings.

Worthy of attention are several single discs that can stand up to the very best accounts included in the sets of the late quartets and complete quartets. One of the finest is the accounts of the Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18/6 and Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 from the outstanding Henschel Quartet. Recorded in 2004 at Munich the Henschels are both sparkling and exhilarating and reveal considerable empathic insights on Arte Nova 82876 63996 2.

For Beethoven quartet performances on period instruments one need not look further than the accounts from Quatuor Mosaïques on the Naïve label. Mosaïques are surely the greatest string quartet ensemble of our time - at least among those performing on authentic instruments. Recorded at the Grafenegg Schloss, Alte Reitschule in Austria there are currently 3 single volumes: Op.18, Nos. 5 and 6 from 1994 on Naïve E 8541; Op.18, Nos. 1 and 4 from 2004 on Naïve E 8899 and Op.18, Nos. 2 and 3 recorded in 2005 on Naïve E 8902. These beautifully played and recorded performances inhabit a rather reserved world. The Mosaïques as one would expect with their authentic performance practice are extremely sparing with vibrato, yet, I was also aware of their narrow dynamic range. Quatuor Mosaïques with superb sound also have the advantage of performing on warmly recorded gloriously rich-toned authentic instruments fitted with gut strings and using period bows. For those who prefer their Beethoven string quartets played less cautiously with lashings of additional spirit on instruments with modern set-ups there are better opportunities in the catalogues.

In summary I was impressed by the fine playing of the Goldner Quartet but their interpretations are no match for the extremely fierce competition.

Michael Cookson

Disc details
Volume I
CD 1
Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 (1798-1800) [28:32]
Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2 (1798-1800) [24:00]
Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18/3 (1798-1800) [24:45]
CD 2
Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18/4 (1798-1800) [23:56]
Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18/5 (1798-1800) [31:35]
CD 3
Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18/6 (1798-1800) [26:56]
Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59/3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [32:45]
CD 4
Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [40:59]
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [21:31]
Volume II
CD 1
Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59/2 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [40:45]
Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ‘The Harp’ (pub. 1809) [31:35]
CD 2
Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [37:29]
Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [38:31]
CD 3
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [47:48]
Große Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (1825-26) [16:21]
CD 4
Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [44:25]
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [27:29]




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