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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
rec. 1994-2019, Salle Poirel and Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1701-08 [8 CDs: 512:32]
The Stanislas Quartet celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2019 and to mark the event its Beethoven cycle has now been issued in a sturdy box set. It was recorded over a quarter-century period starting in 1994 and at two locations in its home city of Nancy, though the only one not to be recorded in the group’s accustomed Salle Poirel was Op.95 which was taped in the Opéra National de Lorraine. The performers were all members of the symphony orchestra in Nancy and are part of the larger Stanislas Ensemble. Their impetus in recording has inevitably been two-pronged; live recordings of canonic repertoire allied to largely studio-based explorations of little-known French repertory. The result is a catholic portfolio of around 50 CDs for a number of labels, not just Forgotten Records, either as a quartet or a larger ensemble with winds. I’ve reviewed a number of their discs here.
These are live in-concert recordings though there has been editing from dress rehearsal run-throughs. So, except for a few instances, the collateral concerns, such as shuffling, applause, a roof lashed by downpours, and bronchial coughs have been eliminated. The only really noticeable coughing comes at 6:40 in the slow movement of Op.59 No.3 but it’s over quickly. Rain problems condemned three of the six movements of Op.130 as unusable so rehearsal takes were substituted. Two recording engineers were employed during the length of the project and they both used the same microphones which were positioned, so far as I can gauge, in pretty much the same place on every occasion. There is a real sense of unity and continuity about the performances even when the personnel, as was inevitable, underwent change. First violin Laurent Causse and cellist Jean de Spengler are the backbone of the ensemble, with changes taking place in the other two positions; second violinist Gee Lee gave way to Bertrand Menut who, during illness, was replaced by Jean-Marie Baudour for two quartets. Paul Fenton was the original violist back in 1988 until 2007 when Marie Triplet took over. For the final piece to be recorded, the Grosse Fuga, however, Fenton returned.
Jean de Spengler is quoted in the attractive booklet as noting that, for the ensemble, their ultimate model on discs has been the Budapest Quartet cycle of 1951. That is much more a question of ethos than technical or tonal similarity. The Stanislas offers a bright corporate sound but are not unafraid to drive resinously if it’s dictated by the musical argument. Their vibratos are well-matched and not heavy. In short, these are leanly textured, and rhythmically alert readings. The question of sprung rhythms is particularly true of the Op.18 quartets where they are resilient but characterful in the Minuets (especially that of Op.18 No.4). Their lean, unsentimental but not unfeeling approach is best measured in the slow movements of the Rasumovsky set, where Op 59 No.1 is crisply delineated. Inevitably in a project as arduous as this there will be incidents along the way – stray intonation, fingerboard accidents. That their end object is not a ‘beautiful sound’ can be understood in the performance of Op.59 No.2 where the slow movement has some emphatic, even billowing unisons. I found passages here more than somewhat uncomfortable but suspect that this was the intention.
The quartet’s architectural control is clear from the start and so too is their resilience in not always offering a harmoniously blended sound. They stress Beethoven’s gruffness but also his wit – especially in the Andante con moto section of the slow movement of Op.127. They’re too choppy in the Alla danza tedesca of Op.130. It’s on this disc that they play the immense Grosse Fuga; no quartet can really maintain perfect intonation here but it’s a mark of their probing musicianship that the Stanislas cope so well with its incessant demands. They certainly don’t hide the difficulties of projecting Op.132 but I like the way the lower string harmonies were pointed in its slow movement even though it remains somewhat remote expressively, something that applies also to Op.135.
The booklet is excellently produced and in both French and English. These are dedicated performances, played in a spirit of engagement and honesty, and shorn of frivolous prettiness.