Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quintet in C, Op.29 (1801/2) [36:35]
String Quintet in c minor, Op.104 (1795, arr.1817) [33:57]
Fugue in D, Op.137 [1:56]
Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans, Efim Boico (violins); Chauncey Patterson (viola); Wolfgang Laufer (cello)) with Gil Sharon (viola II)
rec. Wittem Monastery Library, The Netherlands, 6–8 October 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.572221 [72:44]

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 review. 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 praised elsewhere.

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 movement.

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.

Brian Wilson

see also review by Terry Barfoot

Stylish performances, well recorded, of attractive less-well-known Beethoven on an inexpensive but well-filled CD.