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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Late String Quartets

CD 1
Allegretto in B minor (1817) [0:34]
String Quartet in E flat major Op.127 (1825) [34:45]
String Quartet in A minor Op.132 (1825) [43:15]
CD 2
String Quartet in B flat major Op.130 (including the Grosse Fuge Op.133) (1826) [57:16]
CD 3
String Quartet in C sharp minor Op.131 (1826) [37:10]
String Quartet in F major Op.135 (1826) [24:59]
The Lydian String Quartet
rec. 2003-2010, Brandeis University, Waltham Massachusetts and St. Marks School, Southboro Massachusetts, USA
CENTAUR CRC 3212/3213/3214 [3 CDs: 78:34 + 57:16 + 60:24]

Experience Classicsonline

Sets of Beethoven’s last five string quartets are not an unfamiliar phenomenon, and one of the more recent recordings to come our way was that of the Wihan Quartet on the Nimbus Alliance label (see review). I would agree with Patrick Waller that the Wihans offer a very fine collection of performances of these works but find them comparable with the Lydian players under critical examination in falling a little short of the ideal here and there. As with all truly great music there are many legitimate approaches and no such thing as true perfection in general terms, but certain expectations need to be met to convince this listener, and I fear we have a way to go with regard to this Centaur set.
The Lydian players are recorded fairly closely, the acoustic having less impact as a result but by no means ending up with dry recordings. While a relatively non-fatiguing listen the playing is however held to a closer scrutiny than in some comparisons. There is a small amount of variation between recording sessions but nothing much beyond a slightly warmer sonic picture from one to the other. One of the most attractive aspects of this set is the light touch the Lydians give to these pieces, their transparency of sound emphasising the sunny side of music which can confound expectations of a gruffly impatient and deafly unsociable old Beethoven with his broken Broadwood, inconvenient ear trumpet and smelly bedpan.
A great deal of fun can be had with these recordings and I warmed to them on and off while playing through them for a first time. There is however a troubling aspect to the playing which set my teeth on edge from time to time, even when listening in uncritical ‘let’s just enjoy the music’ mode. Having the mini Allegretto in B minor tacked on at the beginning is disorientating if you are expecting the ‘great works’ experience to kick in straight away, but we’ll let that pass. What worries me most in patches is, not naming names, the first violin part. Admittedly the first movement of the Op. 127 quartet is a tough test in this regard, with the upper voice often seeming to lead a life of its own. You can call me hypercritical but with this recording there is a certain amount of ‘almost but not quite’, a lack of sense of direction which results in some tentative sounds and notes not firmly nailed. This might be interpreted as an attractive fragility if you want to be charitable, and I certainly don’t mean that Beethoven should be shoved around with aggressive assertiveness here, but with so much going on we need clarity of intent and a minimum of technical distractions. Listening to the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon shows how this need not be the case. I won’t hark on about this point and it is by no means a universal problem in every piece, but faster movements such as the Presto of Op. 131 can have one or two vague moments, and there are little corners and small nests of naff notes which I know will bother me when returning to these recordings.
The payoff against the Lydian Quartet’s transparency is another lack, alas. Beethoven’s extremes of contrast need power and colour to communicate anguish, and this is an aspect of these late quartets which is ironed out too much in these performances. Once again comparing with the Emerson Quartet on DG in the final Grave of the Op. 135 quartet, the questioning and defiance in this music just isn’t expressed in as effective a way with the Lydian players. Their Allegro section is lovely and luminous, anticipating Dvorák in a countryside jaunt with a great deal to commend it, but the dramatic storm clouds which develop later on are hardly a threat to our hats and coats, let alone our innermost souls.
Let’s cut to the chase. There are numerous sets of these transcendent works which I would recommend above The Lydian String Quartet by a greater or lesser margin. Of these the Emerson Quartet on DG is a winning choice, and the Quartetto Italiano recordings originally on Philips and now available on a complete set with the Decca label while damned somewhat by late-quartet sceptic David Wright still has masses of emotional involvement to recommend it, even if the sheen of legendary status has worn off somewhat by now. The Alban Berg Quartet on EMI digs deep in eloquent live performances, if with not the most convincing of recorded balances. I still very much enjoy the Alexander Quartet, both in their first Arte Nova set, now surpassed by a more recent recording on Foghorn Classics. Having leapt over to complete sets while this wasn’t really my intention, I’ll stick up for the Borodin Quartet on Chandos, which is still something of a benchmark for me while also still not always hitting the mark, and despite still bemoaning the lack of any booklet notes. This list if by no means comprehensive, and if you have a chance to obtain the Takács Quartet on Decca or the Lindsays on ASV then hesitate not.
There are many nice things on this recording by The Lydian String Quartet, and I admire their lyricism and warmth of expression, for instance in the opening movement of the Op. 131 quartet which is lovely, and even the more tender moments in the madly awkward opening movement of Op. 130. Another aspect of the playing you may or may not like however is a deal of swooping between notes, a standout example of which is to be found in the opening of the Cavatina of Op. 130. The awful but genre-stretching Grosse Fuge is placed here as a penultimate movement, in its position as the original finale. You can programme it out and have the Finale second version on the next track instead. I was hoping the Lydian’s lightness of touch might sell me more on the immutable monument of Op. 133 and indeed they do a decent enough job, but for me its intractability remains intact.
Dominy Clements

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