Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in E flat major Op.74 ‘Harp’ (1809) [30:06]
Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010)
String Quartet 1956 [20:31]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.3 Sz85 (1927) [15:52]
Engegårdkvartetten (Arvid Engegård, Jan-Erik Gustafsson (violin), Juliet Jopping (viola), Atle Sponberg (cello))
rec. April 2009, Sofienberg Church, Oslo
2L RECORDS 2L71 [66:29]

Why this programme? There is no specific theme claimed for the selection of these three pieces, nor need there be. The Engegård quartet just think these are some of the best pieces for string quartet around, and take us on their musical journey with deep conviction.

The SACD engineering of this recording is an important aspect of anyone considering it for their collection, and recording producer Morton Lindberg places us pretty much within the quartet itself, managing the microphone placement differently to get the best out of each piece. Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major Op.74 gets close scrutiny, and I doubt anyone but a quartet member will have heard those pizzicato exchanges in the opening movement with quite such an exhilarating table-tennis thrill. The Engegård Quartet proves itself equal to this highly detailed sonic package, playing with a warm sense of integrated expressivity and vitality. There are too many recordings around to claim this or any other as ‘the best’, but they are every bit the equal of my most recent reference, that of the Borodin Quartet on Chandos. Just the sheer closeness of the recording and separation of the instruments provides an education into Beethoven’s inventiveness, with all of those little inner scales and voices thrown into sharp definition. You might imagine such a fiercely analytical picture would remove some of the emotional effect, but I didn’t find this to be the case. Perhaps the intensity of the Presto third movement is a little overwhelming at times, but there is a place for such a white-knuckle ride, and I have rarely heard that difficult contrapuntal second section quite so emphatically argued – the Engegård players make the Borodin Quartet sound very old and pedestrian here, though this is admittedly perhaps not the best piece in their complete set. This is the recording to bring out if you want a total immersion experience, and having this with Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ quartet played with such potent presence is a real treat.

Arne Nordheim’s String Quartet 1956 comes from a period before his period of concentration on electronic music, and can in many ways be regarded as his Opus 1. He certainly saw it as a significant work, returning to it to make versions for string orchestra including one called ‘Rendezvous for Strings’. The piece does have a modern idiom, but isn’t particularly hard to follow in its expressive language. The first movement is about as long as the second two put together, and is filled with open spaces, contrasting interactions of different quartet members, but always with a kind of timeless ongoing undulation of extended melodic shapes. The quartet instruments are placed more widely apart than the Beethoven in this recording, and we are seated in the middle, sensing the slow shifts of the material as it is passed between the instruments. After a late flowering climax, space is created for the energetic second movement Intermezzo, which is filled with ostinato accompaniments to go with a swiftly dynamic, restlessly advancing melodic development. The emotional focus is on the final Epitaffio, which begins with a slow, spare solo on the viola, accompanied by just two notes from the cello. Quiet restraint, a dark, atmospheric sense of abandoned spaces – you can allow your thoughts to be taken in all kinds of meditative directions with this movement, to which Nordheim was to return again and again as a source of inspiration.

Bartók’s String Quartet No.3 has become a staple of 20th century repertoire and deservedly so. There is of course stiff competition around, and my own reference is the Takács Quartet from their excellent Decca complete set. Once again, this Engegård Quartet recording is one you might consider for the view it gives into the inner workings of this modern masterpiece. The Takács Quartet recording and performance has both a special atmosphere and impact which is hard to beat, but having this 2L disc is really like having the score come alive inside your head. They don’t quite have the same Hungarian-ness as the Takács Quartet, a quality which quickens my pulse every time I hear it, but Bartók’s music can take plenty of new life from the Engegård players who can and do dig deep both into their strings and their resources of emotional communication. There are some tremendous effects in the Allegro second movement or Seconde parte, with the wood and strings of the instruments becoming tactile, turning the air into something malleable and toothsome. Moreten Lindberg’s recording philosophy is that it “should be able to bodily move the listener”, and his achievement here is a very real and special one. The glissandi in the Recapitulazione are marvelous, and the Engegård Quartet’s beauty of sound in the sustained passages is second to none. This is an impassioned performance which rises to every demand set it by the state of the art recording. Far more than an education into the finer inner detail of the String Quartet No.3, this recording almost re-invents it, and you come away with the the feeling it deserves the Coolidge Prize all over again.

This is a remarkable recording both in stereo as well as in SACD formats, and while it truly comes to life in its 5.1 surround format a good deal of attention has been paid to make it highly effective as a plain old CD. The 2L label is very much one to watch, and this is a shining jewel in its already richly studded crown.

Dominy Clements

A shining jewel in 2L’s already richly studded crown.