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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Revelations - The Complete String Quartets Volume 2
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18 No. 2 [23:10]
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 ‘Rasumovsky’ [36:17]
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3 ‘Rasumovsky’ [29:57]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 'Harp' [29:30]
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 [42:16]
Cuarteto Casals
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902403.05 [3 CDs: 161:25]

I was highly impressed with the individualistic performances of the quartets included on Cuarteto Casals first volume of this complete Beethoven series (review), and this second volume continues in a similar vein. In my review I commented on the quartets “bold and vibrant approach”, something which is also clearly evident in this three-disc set, with the Cuarteto Casals adopting tempi and intonations that some listeners might find at odds with their sensibilities, and perceived ideas of how these great works of the quartet oeuvre should sound, but this new and intense approach certainly breathes new life into these five quartets.

Opening with the G major String Quartet Op. 18 No. 2, I was taken especially with their interpretation of the lilting second movement Adagio cantabile – Allegro, as they have the transition between the slower section and the Allegro spot on. Whilst the attack in the Scherzo. Allegro third movement and the final Allegro molto, quasi presto is also wonderful and precise. This Quartet is followed by the Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ‘Harp’; this sharply contrasts the mastery of the classical quartet that Beethoven showed in the set of Op. 18 quartets with his later more romantic style. Composed in what has been described as his E flat year, this wonderful Quartet, along with his Fifth Piano Concerto and the Piano Sonata Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux,’ were all composed in 1809. The nickname of the ‘Harp’ quartet is derived from the arpeggiando pizzicato passages of the first movement, something that is expertly and quite beautifully brought out here by the Cuarteto Casals. This is followed by the wonderful slow movement in the form of a rondo. This is followed by the third movement Presto, a scherzo in all but name: the rhythmic intensity of this movement, reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, is here wonderfully exploited by the Cuarteto Casals.

The second disc stands in sharp contrast to Beethoven’s earlier works, with the lighter textures of the Op. 18 being replaced with a denser and more dramatic outlook, something which is brought to the fore here. These quartets are more technical and daring as in the opening movement of the E minor Quartet, with its contrasting sections. This movement is also linked to the slow second movement in the way that Beethoven’s use of semitones towards the end of the first movement is once again employed, if quite differently, in the Molto adagio. The scherzo section of the third movement is once again semitonal in nature; this is followed by the trio section in which the stately ‘Thčme russe’ is presented. The Quartet finishes with a strident almost Slavic, Finale; here the humour of Beethoven, that is felt in the previous movement, reappears, to great effect. The third and final of the ‘Rasumovsky Quartets’ opens with an Andante con moto which bears no relation to the bright and airy second section Allegro vivace, with the thematic material being developed separately to the opening section’s theme, a device Beethoven would later employ in his Op. 74. The slow second movement does not have a blatantly Russian theme, but it has been argued that the stark thematic material is mindful of the Russian landscape with reference to its dedicatee. The Minuetto. Grazioso – Trio begins quite calmly with its contrapuntal writing, before the trio section speeds things up, this movement and the following Allegro molto seem (and I don’t know how the Cuarteto Casals has achieved this) quicker than they are, with a link from the third movement linking into the tumultuous finale.

The third disc is dedicated to the A minor String Quartet Op. 132, the darkest of the composer’s late string quartets, a true masterpiece. The quartet begins quietly, as does the Op. 131, with the Quartet seeming to grow out of a sombre four note motif played on the cello, which Arnau Tomās Realp plays with a rare intensity, indeed Jean-Paul Montagnier in his booklet notes talks of the slow section of the first movement along with the Molto adagio third movement as being “distinguished by the more or less religious atmosphere”. The second movement is a minuet which is marked by the tightness of its thematic material which is contrasted by its folk-like, or even ländler like trio section. Robert Simpson describes the wonderful Molto adagio as “one of the supreme utterances in music”; something I have to agree with, especially in this new recording by the Cuarteto Casals, who make the most of the famous Heiliger Dankgesang eins Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart section with its chorale-like theme. This is in deep contrast to the Alla Marcia fourth movement which is short and concise and leads into the final Allegro appassionato, which may have been intended as a sketch for an instrumental conclusion of the 9th Symphony.

Once again, I find the performances of these well-known works to be breath-taking and enlightening, with the playing of the Cuarteto Casals a wonderful example of ensemble playing, each of the members instinctively knowing what the other three seem to be thinking, with the result being first rate performances. Indeed, it is difficult to find fault, yes as I have already mentioned, their performance is bold and flies in the face of traditional performances, but they also breathe new life and vitality into the quartets. I for one cannot wait for volume three! As with the previous volume, the recorded sound and the informative booklet notes are excellent, making this a highly recommendable release.

Stuart Sillitoe

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