Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The late string quartets
String quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1825) [36:30]
String quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [43:18]
String quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 (with Grosse Fuge,
Op. 133) (1825) [49:38]
Alternative finale to Op. 130 [10:48]
String quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [38:35]
String quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [24:12]
Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward (violin); Tom Stone (violin);
Ethan Filner (viola); Jennifer Kloetzel (cello))
rec. 2012, Skywalker Sound Scoring Stage, California. DDD
CYPRESS STRING QUARTET CSQBC012 [3 CDs: 79:48 + 61:26 + 62:47]
I first heard the late string quartets of Beethoven in my teens,
on a budget price LP on the French Musidisc label. I don’t
remember much about the performances; one movement that sticks
in my mind is the slow movement of Op. 127, which was played
at an expansive tempo, and took around twenty minutes. However
I do remember the liner-notes, which were obviously translated
by someone for whom English was not their first language. One
sentence I will always treasure said (something along the lines
of) “It is not possible to love Beethoven truly who has
not heard him beat his heart out in these late Quatuors”.
Putting aside the mangled expression, I think the writer is
perfectly correct. To me the late quartets are the crowning
glory of Beethoven’s output. Emotionally they encompass
the most seraphic, the most ecstatic, and some of the most radical
music Beethoven wrote. It is a paradox that in this, his most
inward-looking period, the composer achieved a universal, even
fundamental musical language.
The Cypress String Quartet obviously has the technical armoury
required to tackle these demanding works. The group started
playing the Beethoven quartets soon after its formation in 1996,
and this recording bears the hallmark of long and intensive
study. The slow introduction to the opening movement of Op.
127 and the following Allegro are taken as marked. The
subito piano and pause markings that are so frequent
in these scores are rendered most scrupulously. The group’s
phrasing is also done with great care. Most quartets join phrases
together, so that the end of one dovetails into the beginning
of the next, but the Cypresses do not smooth over this gap.
The wonderful Adagio non troppo e molto cantabile is
not quite as luxurious as it could be; the Cypresses take this
at 14:44 versus the Alban Berg Quartet’s 16:36. The leader’s
intonation fell away a little towards the end of the movement.
Mention must, however, be made of the cellist Jennifer Kloetzel,
whose line is unfailingly rich and beautiful. The sforzandi
in the finale are again played with great exactness, and the
attention to dynamic detail generally is outstanding.
The first movement of Op. 132 elicits a more driven performance.
The Cypress’s sparing use of vibrato is noticeable here.
The second movement brings about a relaxation of the tension,
with superb contributions from the viola. The long chorale-like
phrases of the Molto adagio allow the group’s intelligent
use of vibrato to come into its own. The careful dynamic shaping
in the finale allows the ear to rest from the forte and
fortissimo writing. This is a majestic reading of great
Op. 130 is presented with the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 as
the finale; the alternative finale is also included on the disc.
I noticed in this quartet how often Beethoven pits the two violins
against the viola and cello, and these exchanges in particular
are played quite delightfully. Along with the finale to the
Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106, the Grosse Fuge
is one of Beethoven’s most extended contrapuntal movements.
From the unison opening this performance has quite a symphonic
impact. The Cypresses do not attempt to smooth over the uncompromising
nature of the writing; their performance seems to draw energy
from Beethoven’s attempt to split the musical atom.
Op. 131 was a quartet that I didn’t know as well as the
others. The structure is quite experimental, being divided into
seven movements, all quite short except for the slow movement,
which is another Andante non troppo e molto cantabile.
Initially I was less convinced of the group’s reading
of this than with the other quartets, but a second hearing removed
these doubts. They play the fugal opening movement with concentration
and beauty of tone. After these musical experiments Beethoven
returned to a more familiar utterance in Op. 135, the first
movement of which recalls the classicism of the Op. 18 quartets.
The episode in the Scherzo, in which an obstinate figure swells
into something frighteningly intense, is superbly done. Moments
like these remind us how radical these works must have sounded
to Beethoven’s contemporaries, and how modern they still
A big part of the group’s sound derives from the wonderful
instruments they have at their disposal; these comprise Stradivarius
and Bergonzi violins, a Bellarosa viola and an Hieronymus Amati
II cello. Other aspects of the group’s playing derive
from the historically informed performance movement. Their very
selective use of vibrato is notable. Another one is the democratic
nature of the ensemble. Earlier quartets such as the Amadeus
were much more leader-dominated; there was no doubt as to who
was in the driver’s seat. This has given way in recent
times to a desire to take a more inclusive approach; contemporary
ensembles like the Emerson Quartet go so far as to alternate
the leadership between the violins. To me the Cypresses take
this tendency a little too far, in that the leader can be a
little recessive at times. The cello and viola are such superb
players, they can - at least tonally - tend to dominate the
ensemble. There is obviously no problem with Cecily Ward’s
instrument, so I can only think that her rather low-key leadership
is a conscious choice. When she does cut loose occasionally,
as in the Presto of Op. 131, one can hear what a good
player she is, and one wishes she would do so more often.
The Alban Berg Quartet takes a more traditional approach to
these quartets, and is a little smoother in its phrasing. However
the discords and syncopated rhythms that pervade these scores
are not glossed over. The Alban Berg has the security of a group
of long standing, and that is rooted in a European string quartet
tradition. There is certainly no mistaking the authority of
Günther Pichler’s leadership, and the music always
has direction. Timings are quite similar to those of the Cypress
Quartet - with the exception of the slow movement of Op. 127
as referred to above. In Op. 131, I felt that their reading
had a better grasp of the pattern underlying its heterogeneous
structure. The Alban Berg Quartet Beethoven cycle was made over
a period of five years, and includes some ADD as well as DDD
recordings. As such the sound-picture has less immediacy than
the Cypress Quartet’s self-produced recording, which has
an attractive warmth without being too lush. The photographs
in the liner-notes have the Cypress Quartet players sitting
(from left to right) violins, cello, viola. If the order had
been violins, viola, cello, this would have made the sound-stage
a little more distinct.
Despite the minor quibbles I have expressed, the Cypress Quartet’s
Beethoven readings have numerous virtues. The interpretations
are well thought through, and the group’s beauty of tone
and unanimity of ensemble are unfailing. I look forward to more
of this virtuoso American quartet’s Beethoven - particularly
the Rasumovskys, with their prominent cello line.