The Naxos publicity blurb describes the String Quintet in
C, Op.29, as one of the best-kept secrets of the chamber
music repertoire. It falls between the early Op.18 String
Quartets and the middle-period works, Op.59/1-3; it certainly
deserves to be better known. It’s coupled here with Beethoven’s
own adaptations for string quintet of his early Piano Trio
in c, Op.1/3, and the short Fugue in D. Whoever it
was that said that Beethoven never wrote a fugue – a distinguished
musicologist, as I recall, long ago on an LP sleeve-note – forgot
not only this work and the Große Fuge but other examples
of fugal writing.
The Fine Arts Quartet have already given us some fine Naxos
recordings of Quintets, in company with a second viola player,
Danilo Rossi in Mendelssohn (8.570488), Gil Sharon in Bruckner
(8.570788), or with Cristina Ortiz, piano, in Fauré (8.570938)
and Franck (8.572009). Ian Lace made their recording of the
Fauré one of his Recordings of the Year in 2009 – see
Oleg Ledeniov – here
– and Kevin Sutton – here
– also praised the Fauré recording. I thought their version
of the Franck well worth having, though I marginally preferred
a Hyperion recording and an earlier Naxos version of these works
– see review.
The Bruckner and Mendelssohn recordings have also been highly
Their new CD, again with Gil Sharon, complements the earlier
Naxos recording of the Metamorphosis Quintet in the ‘other’
String Quintets, Op.1/2, Op.11 and Op.17, all transcribed by
Beethoven’s near-contemporary Carl Khym or Chym (8.553827).
By my reckoning that just leaves the String Quintet in E-flat,
Op.4, which is included on a Dynamic recording of the ‘complete’
String Quintets (CDS484) and on Thorofon CTH2440, Ensemble Acht,
with the Septet. Gary Higginson described the latter as ‘one
of the best recordings I have heard this year’, though he was
a little less convinced by the performances – see review.
In Op.29, the only work which Beethoven originally composed
for string quintet, the new recording is up against very strong
competition from the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion CDA67683, where
it is coupled with Op.4. The Nash Ensemble also offer strong
competition in Op.104, coupled with the Piano Quartet in
E-flat, Op.16, on CDA67745.
The Nash Ensemble adopt a faster tempo for the opening allegro
moderato of Op.29, thereby setting the pattern for the work
as a whole, where they consistently undercut the Fine Arts Quartet
by up to a minute in the three longest movements. The Hyperion
performance of the opening movement is more flowing, more lyrical
than the Naxos: to make a huge generalisation, where the Nash
players seem to emphasise the work’s relationship with the Op.18
Quartets, the Fine Arts make it seem closer in spirit to the
Op.59 works. Both approaches work well in context; if I express
a preference for the Hyperion CD, the advantage is not great.
The differences are least marked in the scherzo third
In the slow movement – adagio molto espressivo – the
slightly slower Fine Arts tempo works extremely well, the full
emotion effectively captured without any feeling that they are
making too much of it. I ceased making detailed comparisons
with the Hyperion recording at this point: there is more than
enough to enjoy in the new Naxos version for it to stand and
be recommended on its own merits.
Both the Naxos and Hyperion recordings are good, with the players
not too close. The Naxos sounds slightly more emphatic, in keeping
with the differences between the two performances.
Op.104, despite its high opus number, is an arrangement of the
Piano Trio No.3, the work with which Beethoven first surprised
and shocked the Viennese public, though it now sounds harmless
enough by comparison with the Late Quartets, which still have
the power to take the unwary listener by the throat. Op.1/3
also marked the parting of the ways between Beethoven and Haydn,
who had advised him that he was not yet ready to publish – advice
which Beethoven attributed to jealousy, thereafter proclaiming
that he had learned much more from Salieri than Haydn.
I’m not sure that the quintet arrangement adds anything to the
original version, but the Naxos performance is good enough to
do the music justice. Apart from the third movement, menuetto,
where the timings are exactly equal, they take just a little
longer than the Nash Ensemble. Both are excellent within their
individual contexts, though comparisons incline me slightly
to the Hyperion CD in the outer movements, especially in the
finale, where the Nash players come much closer to the prestissimo
marking. On the other hand, I prefer the Naxos in the slow movement
– a true andante cantabile in both cases, despite the
apparently large gap between 9:39 (Naxos) and 7:18 (Hyperion).
If the Hyperion is closer to my idea of andante, the
Naxos is more cantabile, but there isn’t a great deal
to choose. Those who are expecting to hear what it was about
this early work that left the Viennese musical public so puzzled
will probably find the Fine Arts a little too gemütlich
and prefer the Nash Ensemble.
The Fugue, Op.137, is little more than a curiosity –
gone almost before you realise that it’s there – but it rounds
off the CD well.
To obtain Op.29 and Op.104 on Hyperion involves the purchase
of two full-price CDs if that is the exact coupling that you
require, but you will also obtain excellent performances of
some other attractive music. If you download the Hyperion, the
price differential becomes less marked, with CDA67693 costing
just £6.99 in lossless or mp3 sound – here
– and CDA67745 £7.99 in both formats – here.
The accompanying notes for the Hyperion CDs, by Richard Wigmore,
are excellent – they are yours to download even if you don’t
purchase the recordings. The Naxos notes, by Anthony Short,
are also very good, though the small font is something of a
disadvantage. For what it’s worth, the Hyperion covers, with
paintings by the great Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich,
are more attractive than the Naxos cover photo.
If you just want Op.29 and Op.104, you should not be disappointed
by the new CD – stylish performances, well recorded, of attractive
less-well-known Beethoven on an inexpensive but well-filled
CD. The Hyperion versions may have a slight edge but the different
coupling and higher price may well be deciding factors. In both
cases, however, I recommend getting to know some of Beethoven’s
better-known chamber music, especially the String Quartets and
Piano Trios, first.
see also review by Terry