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Capet String Quartet
Volume 1
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet in D major, Op. 64, No.5 ‘Lark’ [16:30]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No.5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5 [20:53]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’, D 810 [27:49]
rec. 1928
OPUS KURA OPK2051 [66:17]

Volume 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet no.10 in E flat major, Op.74 ‘Harp’ [30:12]
String Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op. 132 [40:42]
rec. 1928
OPUS KURA OPK2052 [71:16]

Volume 3
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K465 ‘Dissonance’ [33.12]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No.7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ [39:27]
rec. 1928
OPUS KURA OPK2053 [73:15]

Volume 4
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor [36:26] (Marcel Ciampi, piano)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131 [37:13]
rec. 1928
OPUS KURA OPK2056 [74:03]

A couple of months ago I reviewed Volume 5 of Opus Kura’s Capet String Quartet legacy. The contents of that particular release were quartets by Ravel, Debussy and Schumann. The quartet focused its energies mainly on Beethoven, and five of the composer’s string quartets make up the bulk of their discography. The remaining four volumes contain these five Beethoven recordings.

The Capet String Quartet was formed in 1893 by Lucien Capet (1878-1928), and it gained a reputation for being one of the finest French ensembles of its time. Capet had been a pupil of Jean-Pierre Maurin at the Paris Conservatoire, had done some solo work and held the position of concertmaster of l'Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux between 1896 and 1899. He was also well regarded as a pedagogue and became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The personnel of the Capet Quartet, with the exception of Lucien Capet himself, who acted as leader, underwent several changes over the years. The line-up on these recordings isn't documented by Opus Kura, but must surely be Maurice Hewitt (violin II), Henri Benoît (viola) and Camille Delobelle (cello). It was with this presumed personnel that the ensemble was engaged to make a series of recordings for Columbia in the late 1920s. The project remained unfinished due to the unexpected death of Capet in 1928. Fortunately, by this time twelve quartets had been set down, and the five Opus Kura volumes document them in their entirety.

Newcomers to these recordings will soon discover how performance style has changed in the intervening years. The sound is certainly leaner, less-weightier than today. Another striking feature is the use of portamento, which at the time was very much in fashion. Having said that, I was struck by the pristine intonation of the ensemble. I had read that their tone was almost vibrato-less. This is certainly not the case, as vibrato is utilized, albeit sparingly. Tully Potter explains it more precisely in his notes, when he says that they moderated their vibrato, using little in Classical repertoire and more in Romantic, but always within the bounds of good taste. The Capets played with gut strings, and utilized a light bow. The performances all sound well-rehearsed, and give the impression of familiarity. They've obviously lived and breathed these works for some time. Phrasing and dynamic gradients are matched, and even portamentos, used for expressive effect, have been worked out and are not just arbitrarily applied. Occasionally they can seem a little over-pronounced, as in the Poco adagio introduction to the first movement of Beethoven's 'Harp' Quartet, and in the Andante Cantabile of Mozart's 'Dissonance' Quartet.

The ensemble conveys great affection and elegance in Haydn's 'Lark', and tempi seem comfortable. The opening movement radiates sunshine, and the Adagio is warmly lyrical and tenderly phrased. The finale is a breathless race to the finishing line. Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' has to be one of the Capets' finest recordings. From the very opening they bring potency and drama. The second movement variations, based on the song, from which the Quartet takes its name, has a haunting quality, with the variations nobly characterized. The Scherzo is rhythmically animated, and the finale purposeful and determined. I marginally prefer the 1928 Capet/Ciampi Franck Piano Quintet to the International/Cortot version set down only a year earlier. I find it more engaging, and Marcel Ciampi seems to have an ideal rapport with the group. The reading is impassioned and sensuous and conveys emotional sweep throughout.

The Capet Quartet’s Beethoven performances were highly regarded in their day, and the five quartets they set down in the studio give some indication of their vision.  Despite the aged sound, these are sublime readings in anyone's book. No 15 in A minor, Op. 132 has an other-worldly character. The Molto Adagio is its emotional centre, and the performance conveys its reverential and hymn-like qualities, rarely matched in my view. The Quartet No. 15 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 owes its success to the intelligence, structure and sense of continuity the Capets bring to it. The spotlight is on the first violin for much of the opening movement of Op. 18, No. 5 and the reading is bold, virtuosic and athletic, and in the finale the contrapuntal lines are clearly defined. The first movement of Op.59 No. 1 is well paced and relaxed, and the Adagio is ardent. The final movement brims over with excitement, verve and vigour. The same captivating qualities can be heard in the lyrically inclined 'Harp' Quartet.

The transfers have been expertly carried out by Y. Yasuhara from Japanese Columbia. It is remarked in the liner notes of Volume 3 that the sound quality of the Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 is inferior to the other recordings. Opus Kura’s non-interventionist re-mastering I find very appealing, and the final results are fresh, intimate and warm with brightness and immediacy. The booklet notes are in Japanese and English. For admirers of historic chamber music recordings, these volumes are indispensible and I heartily recommend them.

Stephen Greenbank




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