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 concentration.
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 are.
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.
Integrity of approach, beautiful playing and well considered interpretations.