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)
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
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.