Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Early Quartets - Volume 1
Op. 18 (1798-1800):
No.1 in F major [24:58]
No.2 in G major [20:10]
No.3 in D major [22:16]
No.4 in C minor [23:05]
No.5 in A major [25:32]
No.6 in B flat major [22:24]
rec. 1926-36, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM106 [67:30 + 70:58]
As the Pro Arte Quartet was to Haydn so, for many years, was the Léner to Beethoven. They were the first group to record the complete cycle of quartets, though it was to take many years. The quartet was taken up by Columbia in 1922 in a move to make good the loss of the London String Quartet to Vocalion, though in one of those contractual quirks the LSQ continued to make a few discs for American Columbia. In the meantime, the Hungarian group began with acoustic recordings of the Beethoven quartets that were, in time, to be supplanted by electrical remakes. The recordings to be heard in Pristine Audio’s releases are the electric recordings, in a process that lasted from 1925 to 1938 and in fact the recording of Op 18/5 in this inaugural Pristine Audio twofer of the complete electrical set was the recording that completed the cycle. By this time, of course, the Busch Quartet had recorded a number of its own recordings – it began in 1932, quite late - though the group never recorded the cycle in its entirety.
The salient qualities of the Léner are homogeneity of tonal production, strong use of portamenti, a uniform density of sound and an exceptional expressive generosity. Both violinists, Jenő Léner and Josef Smilovits, and the violist, Sándor Róth had been pupils of Jenő Hubay, while cellist Imre Hartman was a pupil of David Popper. They make a richer and darker sound than their contemporaries, such as the London, and the Virtuoso, much less the Capet Quartet whose clarity, lightness and restrained use of vibrato proves almost a diametrical opposition to the Léner way of doing things. In this context the London emerges as the most acceptably forward looking of the ensembles, the one that would most fit in with later norms in chamber playing.
And yet there is a huge amount to love about the Léner approach. Lend an ear to the sheer pathos of the slow movement of Op.18/1. It may seem somewhat sentimentalised to ears unfamiliar with the idiom but few groups more sincerely honour the instruction ‘affetuoso ed appassionato’. If you remain unconvinced then there’s the rich cantabile of Op.18/2, a top-to-bottom security of sound distribution, the leader’s lithe bowing in the same quartet’s finale, or the urgency of the rhythmic tension generated in the Presto finale of Op.18/3. Four of the six quartets were recorded in Wigmore Hall whilst the fifth of the set benefitted from Abbey Road Studio No.3 where the quality increase in recorded sound is clear. No location details seem to exist for sure for the first of the Op.18 quartets. The Léner cleverly characterise the variations in Op.18/5 and they reprise their great gift of refined but effusively pathos-laden phrasing in the slow movement of Op.18 No.6.
My own go-to transfers have been the Japanese EMI three twofer sets. For Op.18 this is SAN 1551-52 on the ‘Great Artists of Angel’ marque. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are quieter and less surface-y; they are also rather more defined and forward and avoid an occasional propensity for the SAN work to be rather ‘needle-tracing-the-groove’ in its effect. This can be a little disconcerting, though I will say that the Japanese transfers rather better preserve hall acoustic.
It’s high time that this pioneering sequence of records was made widely available again as it represents something of a milestone in chamber performance on disc and remains the group’s greatest contribution to the discography. I freely admit it’s to the Léner and not the Busch or the Budapest or the Hungarian, the Végh, the Amadeus or a plethora of others that I often go in the last quartets. I do so notwithstanding the greater insights of some other groups in some of the quartets or the better recorded sound – I don’t much care about that. Their corporate sound and moving sincerity continue to sing across the years.