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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets – Volume 1
String Quartet in c minor, Op.18/4 (1799–1800) [24:50]
String Quartet in E, Op.74 ‘Harp’ (1809) [33:04]
String Quartet in B flat, Op.130, Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (1825–6) [52:44]
Elias Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins); Martin Saving (viola); Marie Bitlloch (cello))
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 20 February 2014. DDD
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0073/2 [57:54 + 52:44]

This is a very easy recording to review: it can be done in one paragraph.  The young Elias Quartet, former BBC New Generation artists, offer a splendid introduction to the three periods into which Beethoven’s string quartets are usually divided in a well-recorded live concert from the Wigmore Hall.  I’m already looking forward to the next instalment, recorded the following May, which Claire Seymour reviewed for our associated site Seen and Heard International.

To clinch the matter, my wife has asked me several times to put these CDs on.  I’m also planning to seek out their two earlier Wigmore Hall recordings: WHLIVE0028 (Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schubert) and WHLIVE0051 (Grant, Haydn and Schubert).  They and the new recording can be streamed or sampled from Qobuz.

By giving us these three quartets in one session and in such fine performances the Elias Quartet demonstrate both the length of the journey from Op.18 to the late quartets and the extent to which the end of that journey was already inherent in its beginning.  By 1799 Beethoven was beginning to shake off the debt to Haydn and Mozart, though their output still provided the foundation for his music.  It’s lucky that he was such an awkward customer that he soon mistook the mild-mannered Haydn’s advice for jealousy and branched out on his own, later claiming, perversely, that he had learned more from Salieri – a much more influential figure than you would guess from Amadeus – than from Haydn.  The Elias Quartet don’t over-emphasise either the Mozart/Haydn debt or the foretaste of the late quartets, though both are apparent from their strong performance.

At the other end of the time-scale they give us as powerful a performance of Op.130 as I’ve ever heard, with its original ending, later hived off as the Grosse Fuge.  All the strength of the music is here – the Fuge as impressive as even in Klemperer’s orchestral transcription – without under-playing the beauty of this late work.  What so puzzled his first hearers was the rapid transition from a beautiful tune, too soon thrown away, to what must have sounded as strange as later generations would find the Rite of Spring or Schoenberg’s String Quartets.

I rate this performance of Op.130 on a par with the best, chief among them the Takács Quartet (Quartets 11-16 and Grosse Fuge, Decca 4708492, 3 CDs).  The only reservation that I have for repeated listening is that studio recordings such as the Takács give us the opportunity to choose either the Grosse Fuge or the substituted shorter allegro last movement.  That would not have been possible in a concert, but there is room on the second CD for the quartet to have recorded the shorter finale separately.

The middle-period quartets sometimes get neglected but they, too, drew their share of audience bewilderment in their day.  As with Op.18/4, the Elias players tread a secure middle path between the conventional and the unconventional aspects of the Harp Quartet.

Well-deserved and fairly extended applause is retained at the end of the each of the three quartets.  It’s not separately tracked, which I know that some listeners will find a problem.

The recording is very good and Daniel Tong’s notes – from the Wigmore Hall programme, I presume – are informative.

There’s no need to pad out this review: this is my second Recording of the Month in a few days and, as usual, short and sweet means that I very much approve.  I will, however, repeat myself and say how much I’m looking forward to Volume 2.

Brian Wilson

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