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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets
Belcea Quartet
rec. live, 3-4 December 2011, 23-25 March, 18-19 May, 13 October, 1-2 December 2012, Britten Studio, Snape, UK
ALPHA CLASSICS 469 [8 CDs: 518:17]

This is a re-re-issue of an acclaimed complete set of the Beethoven string quartets. There doesn’t seem to have been any re-mastering done for this new edition, nor would there be any need, the recordings are all excellent. Previous manifestations of the set have been reviewed by Stephen Greenbank (review), who was sure it would “stand the test of time” back in 2014. Alpha Classics re-released in 2016, and Mark Sealey was more equivocal (review), concluding that this set’s value “lies more in consistency and confidence, than as a reference set full of ineffable vision.” I’ve not had contact with these earlier releases, but the current version comes in a nice firm open-ended box with four gatefold cardboard inserts for the eight discs, a fairly skimpy booklet and another bit of card to make up the space because the cassette box is a little too big.

I don’t plan on an in-depth analysis of every performance here. Complete sets by any quartet are always going to have their strengths and weaknesses, but I was interested in seeing how the Belcea Quartet stacks up against the competition in complete sets of the Beethoven Quartets.

I certainly prefer them over the Borodin Quartet on Chandos (review), which is a decent enough set for the price. The Belcea Quartet is however tidier, has greater dynamic range and a nicer sound. The Alexander String Quartet’s second complete Beethoven cycle on Foghorn Classics (review) is superbly played and has a tightly controlled feel that gives the listener a great sense of technical security, though I don’t get quite the feeling of mystery in the slow movements of some of the middle and late quartets. The Tokyo String Quartet’s Harmonia Mundi set is much lauded, and rightly so (review). Their dynamic range and sense of detail and colour is comparable to the Belcea Quartet, though the latter is a little more prepared to seek the ragged edge when it comes to the most intense of passages. Both quartets have that hushed softness you want in places where Beethoven draws in the listener for those slow movements. The Takács Quartet on Decca is held by many to be amongst if not the finest in this repertoire, and for sheer drama and involvement they are indeed hard to beat. Fast movements are intense and hard-driven without being unidiomatic, and the atmosphere is electric even in some of Beethoven’s more eccentric passagework. This intensity is apparent even in the earlier quartets, and while the Belcea Quartet is a touch less dramatic in general that uncompromising approach to the Op. 18 quartets is something both ensembles share.

You expect a quartet to breathe as one, and this is certainly true of the Belcea Quartet. The detail and colour in their playing makes each performance truly involving, and they have a knack of allowing, indeed relishing those fractions of extra flexibility from whichever instrument is playing a solo line at any one moment. In other words, there is a great deal of character in these performances, and that fascinating sense of conversation, argument and give-and-take that is a feature of all good quartets is very strong in these recordings. The results are simply very enjoyable at the basic level, but as with any great performance the closer you look the more you can get out. Leaping straight to one of the late quartets, the A-minor Op. 132, that hushed opening with its subtle dynamic shading emerges from nothing, a ‘creation’ moment that sets us up for contrasts later on. This first movement has moments of painful loneliness that are acutely observed by the players, and with all of the complex musical discourse going on there is always transparent clarity that allows the notes to communicate freely. The dancing, questioning restlessness of the second movement with those special folk-music moments in its ‘trio’ section is all superbly done, and the Heiliger Dankgesang that opens the third movement is breathtakingly atmospheric. The detail and control throughout the entire piece is exemplary and musically deeply convincing, the extremes of the final Allegro appassionato a genuinely exploratory roller-coaster ride on Beethoven’s mercurial inventiveness.

The other score I happened to have lying around was that of Op. 59, No. 2, a quartet with plenty of extremes and really complex technical demands. The expressive detail is all there in the first page, with those sf inflections all carefully weighed, but it is the character in those quixotic solo lines that always draws my attention. Even for mere moments, where an inner voice needs its space the playing of the other musicians allows for more than the just the notes, and you can hear the thought and care that has gone into all of these performances in this regard. That prayer-like opening to the second movement is beautifully expressive; warm with vibrato but quiet and restrained, drawing the listener in to Beethoven’s soulful narrative. The dynamic extremes are also pushed to the edge here, with a rough edge to those ff triplets about halfway through the movement. This has real emotional impact – the kind of thing you want to make people sit through the entirety of for your funeral.

In short then, this is a valuable and excellent recording of Beethoven’s string quartets. No set is perfect, and if you want even more hothouse passion in the music then the Takacs Quartet will deliver that. Old favourites such as the Quartetto Italiano also on Decca all hold onto their venerated positions, but of the more recent recordings I’ve heard the Belcea Quartet is right up there with the best. Criticisms include a booklet that doesn’t offer much in the way of information, and the gatefold sleeves in which the CDs are housed have something gluey inside that can make the discs stick. I’ve been fortunate that not much of this has shed onto the actual discs, but I’m not the only one to note this packaging flaw. Price is similar to the previous Alpha re-release, and is very good value indeed.

Dominy Clements

CD 1 [62:57]
Quartet for strings no.6 in B Flat Major, Op. 18 no.6 [23:21]
Quartet for strings no.12 in E Flat Major, Op. 127 [37:33]
CD 2 [56:09]
Quartet for strings no.2 in G Major, Op.18 no.2 [23:05]
Quartet for strings no.9 in C Major, Op.59 no.3 [31:49]
CD 3 [58:45]
Quartet for strings no.11 in F minor, Op.95 [20:27]
Quartet for strings no.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131 [38:03]
CD 4 [55:35]
Quartet for strings no.1 in F Major, Op.18 no.1 [30:17]
Quartet for strings no.4 in C minor, Op.18 no.4 [25:02]
CD 5 [69:00]
Quartet for strings no.3 in D major, Op.18 no.3 [24:59]
Quartet for strings no.5 in A major, Op.18 no.5 [27:50]
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 133 [15:47]
CD 6 [76:34]
Quartet for Strings no.7 in F major, Op. 59 no.1 ‘Razumovsky’ [40:42]
Quartet for Strings no.8 in E minor, Op. 59 no.2 ‘Razumovsky’ [35:34]
CD 7 [71:11]
Quartet for Strings no.10 in E flat major Op.74 ‘Harp’ [31:12]
Quartet for Strings no.13 in B flat major, Op. 130 [39:40]
CD 8 [71:06]
Quartet for Strings no.15 in A minor, Op.132 [46:13]
Quartet for Strings no. 16 in F major, Op.135 [24:38]

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