Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) The Early Quartets
String Quartet No.1 in F major Op.18 No.1 (1798-1800) [27:42]
String Quartet No.2 in G major Op.18 No.2 (1798-1800) [20:06]
String Quartet No.3 in D major Op.18 No.3 (1798-1800) [19:12]
String Quartet No.4 in F major Op.18 No.4 (1798-1800) [21:24]
String Quartet No.5 in F major Op.18 No.5 (1798-1800) [22:35]
String Quartet No.6 in F major Op.18 No.6 (1798-1800) [24:07]
Rehearsal fragment from 13 April 1944 [9:21]
Budapest String Quartet
rec. 1 November 1943 (No.5); 9 March 1944 (No.3); 23 March 1944 (No.1);13 April 1944 (No.2): 11 November 1960 (No.6): 30 March 1962 (No.4). live in concert, at the Library of Congress
BRIDGE 9342A/B [67:41 + 77:27]
 
Itís been a long time coming. Budapesters will know that the Bridge discs devoted to the Middle [9099A/C] and Late Quartets [9072A/C] were issued a good, long time ago Ė 2000 and 1997 respectively to be precise. Iím not sure why this final volume has been so long delayed, but the wait has been worth it as the performances match those previously issued in their levels of executant excellence and forceful commitment. There are the usual caveats about the Library of Congress sound quality, which is often very boxy, but these were in-house recordings and never meant for commercial release so one cannot be too critical, rather thankful to the Bridge team for choosing, tidying up, transferring, and releasing these musically and historically important performances.
 
They cover a transitional period in the quartetís history when Edgar Ortenberg replaced Sasha Schneider in the second violin chair before Schneiderís subsequent return. Thus the A major, recorded in November 1943, features Schneider and the D major Op.18 No.3 which was given in concert on 9 March 1944 features Ortenberg. Handily, Ortenbergís performances are contained in disc 1 and Schneiderís in disc 2.
 
The live performances compare favourably in all but recording quality with the commercial discs that have survived in this repertoire. The F major, Op.18 No.1 (23 March 1944) is in fact considerably more expansive than the 78 set made in the Liederkranz Hall back in 1940. This is particularly true of the far more relaxed and spun-out slow movement. The performance triumphs the rather mushy sound quality. Three weeks later they performed the G major in a slightly boxier recording but in a fully dramatic reading. Itís aligned with their tautly driving best 1940s Beethoven style, and their projection of the expressive elements of the slow movement is astutely judged. One of the coups of this release is that it preserves Ortenbergís very first concert with the group, on 9 March. There are no tentative moments at all, and ensemble is rock solid.
 
The fourth in the Op.18 set takes us forward in time to 1962, the last year of the groupís residence at the Library. The sound here is rather boomy and dry. Leader Joseph Roismanís intonation wanders around a good bit but he gets better as the work develops. The performance is quicker than one is used to hearing from the group and thereís a razory quality to the corporate sound that borders on insistence, though the March rhythms bite well. For No.5 we go back to November 1943 and this certainly captures a good spectrum of cellist Mischa Schneiderís tone and the well-balanced ebullience of the slow movement, despite the attendant aural limitations. The last of the set, No.6, comes from a November 1960 concert. Itís a much better performance than the 1962 No.4 from two years later, and I would rank it significantly higher than the quartetís contemporaneous studio recordings, where they can sound lackadaisical.
 
As a bonus thereís a rehearsal segment of a performance in April 1944. The work is the slow movement of Op.59 No.2. Thereís a lot of jabbering, and concern over balance, as well as brief phrases of music played by those not taking part in the chat, but when the music starts they play largely uninterrupted.
 
Itís been well worth the wait for these performances. Restoration has done what it can for the boxy originals, but the energy and drive of the playing will make up for that. The notes are helpful, but I part company from David Starobin when he asserts that it was largely due to the Budapest that Beethoven quartet cycles became a Ďrite of passageí for subsequent groups. Beethoven cycles were nothing new, and the London String Quartet had been performing them across the globe for two decades before the Budapest.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 
Itís been well worth the wait for these performances.