Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets, and Piano Quartets, Op.152
Quatuor Pascal, Arthur Balsam (piano)
rec. 1952, Paris
Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 (1798-1800) [28:54]
Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2 (1798-1800) [22:10]
Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18/3 (1798-1800) [22:04]
Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18/4 (1798-1800) [25:16]
Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18/5 (1798-1800) [28:27]
Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18/6 (1798-1800) [25:03]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 245-46 [73:12 + 78:49]
Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [37:13]
Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59/2 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [30:49]
Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59/3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [29:01]
Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ‘The Harp’ (pub. 1809) [30:50]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 255-56 [68:05 + 59:64]
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [21:01]
Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [36:31]
Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [38:31]
Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [38:51]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 267-68 [57:34 + 77:25]
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [46:48]
Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (1825-26) [15:49]
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [22:42]
Quartet for piano and strings Op.152 (1785); No.1 [18:31]: No.2 [18:22]: No.3 [15:20]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 293-94 [62:40 + 75:40]
When I last wrote about the Pascal Quartet, a frequent contributor to the message board of this site gently took me to task for my unenthusiastic comments on their mono cycle of the Beethoven Quartets. Well, Fate has a way of working its magic and here I am, faced with the very same cycle I briefly alluded to in that other review.
The quartets come in four 2 CD sets, all available separately The Piano Quartets, Op.152, are found as substantial bonuses in the last discs of the cycle; there the quartet was joined, as so often on disc, by Artur Balsam.
I have a simple test for Pascal Quartet recordings. In every instance where repertoire overlaps, I contrast their LP recordings with those 78s of the quartet in which their violist, Léon Pascal, had played before the war, the Calvet Quartet. The Calvet left behind a major series of recordings in the 1936-39 period. The Pascal formed in 1941, and on disc its most important years were around 1950-55. It disbanded in 1973.
So we do have a chance to contrast Pascal’s recordings with the Calvet and with his own later group. It should also be possible to listen, compare and contrast those few 78s (as opposed to LPs) that the Pascal Quartet made of Beethoven quartets, but which I’ve never heard. That should be a most interesting experiment. We do also have the opportunity, should we wish, to compare the Pascal in Beethoven with recordings by other notable French quartets of the time; the Bouillon, say, or the Loewenguth. Beyond national borders, the Vegh Quartet made its first somewhat objectified cycle in the same year as the Pascal, and the following year the Hungarian Quartet recorded its fine cycle, in Paris, interestingly.
After the elegance of Jules Boucherit and the sensuality of Jacques Thibaud, French violin playing went through a gritty patch in the 1930s and 40s. There was a rather caustic edge to many, but not all, French players’ tones, and recording studios in Paris were often cold and boxy, exacerbating the problem.
I’m aware that this Beethoven cycle was very popular and that Concert Hall did well out of it. I have seen figures like a million sets sold, which sounds astronomically high to me, but it could be right, I suppose, though I remain to be convinced of that. So let me first apply the Calvet-Pascal test and admit that in every case of overlap my preference is powerfully for the Calvet, for their corporate tonal qualities and acutely perceptive musicianship. Let’s briefly note the 1952 recorded sound, which is often shrill and sometimes even distorted. The tone of the Pascal was often brittle, sometimes crude, and unblended. Its first violin, Jacques Dumont wasn’t always fully in tune, and he could sometimes be cavalier over rhythm. Unisons are sometimes, not always, strenuous and razory; in the Grosse fuge it’s daemonically overpowering, indeed unpleasant.
Interpretatively, they take a raptly slow tempo in the slow movement of Op.132, à la Busch or later the Quartetto Italiano, but there are occasional intonational clashes and a corporate nasality that imparts dryness to the performance. They slow toward the end with a powerful pianissimo, which is effective in its way, but lacks structural congruity. Pascal plays very smearily in the following movement. In short, they tend to make heavy weather of the late quartets. They make things sound as technically difficult as they are. This stresses the modernity of the music, for sure, but the coarse tone production doesn’t help.
In their defence though - and I don’t want this review to be a diatribe, because I do admire the group in other repertoire - I wonder how well prepared they were for the project, and how much rehearsal time went in. There is a certain cool aesthetic to be admired, maybe, in Op.131 but I find that they are frustratingly unable to blend tones; odd voicings are forever destabilising corporate unisons. Their scrunchily congested playing of Op.59 No.2 is, sadly, representative, and the individual tones of each player are rather bleached of real tone colour - though, again, to what extent the recordings contributed is another question. Against that, tempi are generally well chosen. Some of the Op.18 set work better; and music where folkloric influences are present brings out the best in them.
So, unfortunately, I still have negative feelings regarding the Pascal Quartet’s Beethoven. I welcome the restorations, though, faithfully preserving that chilly, unhelpful acoustic and these in many ways pioneering but ultimately unconvincing performances.
Pioneering but ultimately unconvincing.