Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Late String Quartets: Volume 2
String Quartet in B-flat, Op.130 with original finale, Große Fuge, Op.133 (1825) [33:12]
Alternative finale (1826) [10:48]
Cypress String Quartet - Cecily Ward, Tom Stone (violins); Ethan Filner (viola); Jennifer Kloetzel (cello)
rec. Skywalker Sound, San Rafael, California; date not stated. Presumed DDD.

Formed in 1996, the Cypress Quartet have made several recordings on their own label and for Naxos. I had not heard them before, but was sufficiently impressed by their performances on this CD to want to hear them again. I’m not sure that their playing ‘question[s] conventions’ as much as the publicity material claims, but it is certainly both technically accomplished and sympathetic to the varying moods of the music.

The publicity material for the present recording also reminds us how well the first volume of their Beethoven Late Quartets series was received. I don’t think we covered that on Musicweb International, but John Quinn, in 2003, was most appreciative of their recording of Haydn, Ravel and Schulhoff on CSQ3275: “In summary, this is an enjoyable disc by a fresh-sounding young quartet from whom I hope we hear more on disc. Recommended.” (See full review here.)

More recently, the Cypress Quartet have recorded Benjamin Lees’ String Quartets 1, 5 and 6 for Naxos (8.559628 – see review) for Naxos and have contributed to a programme of the chamber music of Jennifer Higdon for the same label (8.559928 – see review).

Reviewing that earlier recording on the Cypress independent label, JQ particularly appreciated the performers’ ebullient high spirits in the finale of Haydn’s Quartet Op.76/5. I was not surprised, therefore, to find their account of the fourth movement of Op.130 especially attractive: it’s marked alla dansa tedesca and, while a German dance may not generally be thought of as the most lively in the world, this movement goes with a real swing. Like most movements in Beethoven’s Late Quartets, however, the tunefulness is only part of the story: there’s a manic side to the music that sets it quite apart from any German Dance that Mozart, Schubert, Lanner or the Strauss Family might ever have written, and the Cypress Quartet captures this side of the music, too. If they very slightly smooth out some of the harsher contours, that’s true, too, of some of the best recordings of this music.

The Op.130/Op.133 coupling is now pretty standard practice and, though it makes for a slightly short recording, it makes sense to have both the original and revised final movements on the same CD. I prefer recordings, however, which perform the first five movements of Op.130 and conclude with the revised 1826 finale as the default version, leaving the 1825 Große Fuge either as a separate work or programmable as the finale. You can, of course, programme the new recording that way, but the disc’s default position restores the work as it was originally composed. It’s a nuisance to have to re-programme a CD and some of the most expensive decks don’t even allow you to do so.

Though the Borodin Quartet (Virgin) adopt the same arrangement, with the Große Fuge followed by the 1826 finale, and though it may be heresy to entertain the thought, I’m not sure that public opinion in 1825/6 wasn’t right: at the first performance the second and fourth movements were encored but the finale was not appreciated. Though Beethoven complained that the public were cattle and asses not to appreciate it, the original fugal finale was (and is) very long and the Fuge stands very well as a work in its own right. Check out the Klemperer Eroica/Große Fuge coupling on EMI to see how well it works alone: though I prefer his mono Eroica to the stereo remake with that coupling, the later version is still one of my Desert Island discs.

The Cypress Quartet timing of 15:15 is relatively fast for my liking – the Quartetto Italiano (Philips), whose version was my introduction to the work, take 18:53. The Cypress tempo works well, though, and is not too far from the consensus: the Amadeus Quartet take 15:25, the Alban Berg Quartet (EMI) 15:31, the Borodin Quartet (Virgin) 15:47. The Lindsays (ASV) and the Emerson Quartet (DG) are faster at 15:02 and 14:41 respectively and the highly respected Takacs Quartet version (Decca) fastest of all at 14:28.

Whatever I think of the arrangement of making the Fuge the default finale, the Cypress Quartet give an excellent performance, so good, in fact, that it seems almost a sacrilege to play track 7 with what the notes call the ‘alternate’ finale immediately afterwards. (When will our transatlantic cousins learn the difference between ‘alternate’, one after the other, and ‘alternative’, one instead of the other: having taught English 101 to undergrads in the US system, I know what a high standard of English is required of them, much higher than in the UK, but this is one distinction that they really ought to get right.) Whichever way you programme the CD, however, the Cypress Quartet’s relatively unhurried version of the revised finale works very well. On paper, they look slow at over a minute longer than the Lindsays and the Takács Quartet, but their performance is never allowed to drag.

The recording is very good, though it may be slightly too forward for some listeners. It reminds me of the presence which CBS afforded to their stereo remake of the Budapest Quartet’s versions of these late quartets, recently reissued on an 8 CD set (Sony 88697776782). The notes, which are contained on three sides of the gatefold cover, are rather short but may well be all that even the beginner needs.

This CD now joins the very best recordings of two works which stand at the spiritual height of the chamber music repertoire, rivalled only by Schubert’s String Quintet in C. If the Cypress String Quartet smoothes over some of the music’s rougher contours slightly, the gain in their expression of the music’s inner strengths amply compensates. Not all UK dealers seem to sell this recording, but if you’re finding it hard to obtain, also have it as a download – here – at £5.53.

Brian Wilson

Joins the great recordings of these wonderful works.