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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
Talich Quartet (Petr Messiereur (violin I); Jan Kvapil (violin II); Jan Talich Sr. (viola); Evzen Rattay (cello))
rec. 1977 - 1981, Église, Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, France.
LA DOLCE VOLTA LDV 121.7 [7 CDs: 72:49 + 72:38 + 73:17 + 71:56 + 72:58 + 71:12 + 67:12]
There is a pleasing array of complete cycles of the Beethoven string quartets now available. In a rough speculative order of quality, sets which can be recommended are those by the Alban Berg (EMI Classics 73606); Emerson (Deutsche Grammophon 001477002); Quartetto Italiano (Philips 454062); Takac (Decca 000186402, 470847 and 000387502); Endellion (Warner Classics 517450); Lindsay (Resonance 801); Tokyo (Rca Victor Red Seal 68038 for the complete cycle, and a new one unfolding on Harmonia Mundi); Borodin (Chandos 10553); Amadeus (Deutsche Grammophon 463143) and Alexander (Foghorn Classics 2005).
Of those cycles which most would describe as 'great' recordings only that by the Vegh is currently deleted and hard or impossible to come by. All of these make excellent choices. Now here is a reissue on the French La Dolce Volta label of the cycle recorded by the Talich Quartet almost 25 years ago for Calliope. 
Modern string quartet players seem to strike out in one of two directions. Given the iconic peak which these 16 string quartets represent some ensembles aim at interpretations which almost distil, abstract and refine the production of sound so that the heights of the music are paramount. Others - perhaps aware of the benefits of authentic and historically informed performance - emphasise the very nature of the sound of strings. Typically these are more closely miked and are perhaps intended to be regarded more as performances per se
Examples of the former approach are the cycles by Quartetto Italiano and the Lindsays; and of the latter those by the Emersons and Takacs. The Talichs here aim for something between the two. At the centre of this no compromise approach is a confidence which originates in the pedigree of the players, their families and the musical traditions which they have inherited, represent and perpetuate.
Czech Jan Talich (senior), who founded the quartet in 1964, is the nephew of Vaclav Talich, conductor of the Czech Philharmonic between 1919 and 1939. Jan Talich junior joined in 1997. Although these recordings come after the watershed in 1970 when Petr Messiereur took over leadership from Jan Talich (senior), it displays the self-confidence, maturity and depth of experience of the first line-up. Each of the players on this recording has his own distinctive sound. The cello of Evzen Rattay, for instance, is particularly mellow and resonant; though never overbearing or strident.
One of your first impressions of the cycle will be its consistency. There are memorable moments indeed whole movements that entirely sweep you away. Yet rarely does this quartet play with such conviction, steel or heart that you feel the music couldn't be played in any other way. That's not to say that the playing is bland and featureless. However it does lack colour and energy at times.
There are places when the playing becomes almost detached. Not clinical or over-thought. Nor really cold. Just a touch matter-of-fact. Just on the right side of the line midway between perfunctory and self-assured. Passages in the divine andante of Op. 131 [CD.6 tr.8], for example, never reach the sublime that all of the other ensembles in the complete cycles listed above do. The players need to pause and - without abasing themselves - sit and gaze in humble wonder at this music. Alas, the steady beat three minutes in, for example, is almost pedestrian in the Talich’s account.
Some movements' recapitulations, such as that of the Second Razumovsky's (Op. 59, No. 2) final movement [CD.5 tr.4] lack the 'extra' that the return of the themes demands. There's no lofty removal of any of the players' involvement in the work. While neither casual nor remote there is a failure to connect with the excitement in Beethoven's faster writing such as that in which the Quartetto Italiano consistently revel.
On the other hand, the technical ability of the Talich is beyond reproach. There is a smoothness, an even-handed and gentle decisiveness at every turn. The polish - while evident - is matt not gloss. This is in general very welcome.
The opening of Op. 130 [] epitomises the Talich’s style. The slow unison at the start needs unison playing and it gets it. However it consists clearly of individual instruments each with its own trappings rather than an attempt at a monolithic wall.
When the movement reaches the faster sections - albeit with slower interjections - the sense that all four contributors are weaving a common tapestry increases. At the same time, the sweetness of the violins, the seasoned yet also fresh harmonies from the viola and the supportive but adventurous cello all contribute towards a sense that something intricate and pleasing is about to come our way; and to a certainty that what we have just heard was no anomaly. Steadiness and levelheadedness are in the ascendant again.
The Talich’s tempi don't tease. They lead. We rarely have time to anticipate the next musical sentence: the players have found the very centre of the music's import. They quietly communicate it to us using structure as much as vertically-perceived sound. Strangely, though, without tentativeness, their phrasing, tempi and metre are never so strident as to suggest that they have found an interpretative artefact or angle that should overrule everyone else's. This is illustrated by the swaying and lilting that pervades the same movement at around nine minutes.
There is a bucolic - perhaps an essentially Czech - timbre to the playing and in the combination of string sounds. It is something almost rustic, strong in 'folk' influences. Yet it is never wayward nor does it allude to Romany voices. The regrouping that occurs with barely a minute to go in the lengthy first movement of Op. 130 is reinforced by a marked - and somewhat unusual - accelerando in the penultimate bars. This is not capricious, one realises, as the second movement begins: rubato rules the day.
As the quartet progresses, the command which the members of the Talich quartet can invariably summon is not ostentatious. Yet their sense of direction is conscious and palpable. At times this pre-occupation with structure, while always necessary and desirable, becomes almost an end in itself; which it is not. When compared with the Berg and the Emerson, the Talich may be felt to lack a little verve. There’s no want of insight, clarity or interpretative depth but they do lack a little … life. The stumbling theme of Op. 130's third movement [CD.5 tr.7] immediately before the first pizzicato at three minutes or so in is just a touch too laboured. For all the roughness, this and the immediately subsequent passages need to sing.
There is always great sensitivity in the Talich’s playing: the opening of Op. 59, No. 3, the third Razumovsky, [CD.6 tr.1] is typical too. The players balance sweetness with a kind of drive that's not at all out of place and the movement is never forced. The Talichs have a knack of letting the music evolve at its own rate and pace.
The springing figures in this movement are plain and placed before us with nice variations in dynamic: never too loud, nor inviting us to strain. There is, however, a sense in which we are somehow expected to know the music well rather than being offered something startling and new, vigorous and innovative. What's more, the Talich seems to make much less of the progression from early, middle to late than do the other quartets.
They have a splendid veneration for the Opp. 18 and 59 sets. They do not overplay the ethereality and profundity of the late half dozen. The Große Fuge is played alone; not as an alternative ending to Op. 130 as on some recordings - it's not even on the same CD here. Beethoven's slow and painful abandonment of the models of Mozart and Haydn is not even implicit in this cycle. Another way of looking at it is to see each work standing alone in its own right.
The recordings on the seven CDs, then, do not reflect the chronological order in which we know Beethoven wrote them. Nor does the cycle aim to present an early, middle and late quartet grouping. Even CDs 1 and 2 have Op. 18 in the order 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, 6. CD3 then jumps to the Große Fuge (Op. 133) followed by Op. 95 then 127. CDs 4, 5 and 6 each pair a Razumovsky with a later quartet - Opera 74 (The Harp), 130 and 131 respectively. The final CD has Op. 132 followed by 135. Since one valid approach to Beethoven's quartets is to link them to his personal and spiritual development, a common listening practice is chronological. If you want to experience this cycle in this way, you'll have to keep stopping, ejecting and inserting CDs.
The recording's acoustic is clear and forward throughout. The string sounds are clean and clear if neither bright nor crystalline. The acoustic seems to wrap itself around the players in a way that allows us to concentrate on the music as much as on its production. The accompanying booklet in French and English - although imperfectly translated and poorly proofed in places - contains an introductory essay and brief descriptions of each of the 16 quartets - this time in chronological order.
This is unlikely to be your reference cycle; or your first choice. The insight offered by the Talich Quartet into what Beethoven 'meant' by his chamber music is adequate though not definitive. The beauty of their playing, though, is undeniable, easy to listen to and appealing. That said, other cycles are undoubtedly more revealing, more striking and more satisfying overall. 
Mark Sealey