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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) 
Apotheosis - The Complete String Quartets Volume III
String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18 No. 5 [28:31]
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 No. 6 [25:32]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op. 95 'Serioso' [19:05]
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 [35:53]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 mvts i – v [30:43]
‘Grosse Fuge’ Op. 133 [15:48]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 mvt vi [9:32]
Cuarteto Casals
rec. 2019, Tiedex Studios, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902406/08 [3 CDs: 165:03]

I have been more than impressed with the presentations of the Cuarteto Casals’ previous volumes in this series, Volume 1 ‘Inventions’ (review) and Volume 2 ‘Revelations’ (review), waxing lyrical about their performance in my reviews of both sets. In this, the concluding set of the series, the Cuarteto Casals continue in the same vein, so expect more high praise for this recording - it whole heartedly deserves it.

As with the previous two volumes, the Cuarteto Casals once again presents a mixture of quartets from Beethoven’s compositional career, no presentation of just the ‘late quartets’ here. In this issue and the series as a whole, the Cuarteto Casals have instead decided to present the quartets in a completely new way, selecting a quartet to represent the first the impetus behind the period, then its realisation, and finally its consolidation, so on this three disc set we get the last of the early period quartets, the last of the middle period quartets and the culmination of Beethoven’s quartet output as a whole. As a concept, it works well, the three periods being represented equally well over the three sets.

The previous two sets were blessed with some stupendous playing: muscular, almost visceral at times, while at the same time tender when called upon. The result is a first-rate performance, in which the raw energy of Beethoven’s writing is brought out well, as are the more lilting and passionate passages. And, I am glad to say that this: the third and final instalment of this thrilling series fulfils expectations on every level and is a superb conclusion to the Cuarteto Casals’ excellent survey of the complete string quartets.

As with the previous two volumes, they once again begin this set with the Op. 18 quartets, this time nos. 5 in A Major and 6 in B flat Major. Here, they give a performance that pulls no punches as they shape every little phrase to get the most from it, with bold articulations and use of instrumental colour. Beethoven set out his view of just how the string quartet would develop in the future and here we have a nuanced performance that does just that. In these quartets, Beethoven moves away from the Viennese classical view of Haydn and especially Mozart, towards the new style of Romantic quartet. This can be seen in the way that in the A Major Quartet Beethoven was clearly using Mozart’s K. 464 as a model; he strives to break away from the Mozart, especially in the slow Andante cantabile con variazioni third movement, and in the way that he uses greater expressive intensity throughout. Beethoven has clearly moved further away from the classical form with his B flat Major Quartet, in which he eschews the usual four movement form in favour of a five movement scheme where we get not one but two slow movements, the second movement Adagio ma non troppo along with the remarkable fourth movement ‘La Malinconia’. Adagio which, despite its “unpredictable harmonic trajectory” and its heartfelt sorrow, is a highlight of the Quartet No. 6, and the early quartets as a whole. This sense of misery is something in which the Cuarteto Casals excel, as they do throughout this quartet, especially the final movement where they effortlessly master the continued shifts and turns in pace and rhythmic intensity, including another Adagio central section, showing great control as well as understanding of Beethoven’s wishes.

The second disc opens with a blistering rendition of the F minor Quartet Op. 95, known as the 'Serioso', which is quite deceptive as it is certainly not the quickest version of the Allegro con brio first movement in my collection, the Alban Berg clocking in nearly twenty seconds faster. However, it is attack and bite of the strings which give the Cuarteto Casals the edge here, especially as the movement progresses, the slower thematic material being regularly interrupted by the opening aggressive theme. Here, Beethoven has left the classical concept behind, and despite the quartet being in the traditional four movements, it certainly occupies a totally different sound world from his predecessors’ quartets in the way that he pulls notes and musical phrasing around. This is especially evident in the final movement Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato: as the slow but brief opening section gives way, there is a sense of pain in the more agitated second section, which could, as has been suggested elsewhere, be the reason why this quartet was composed, as a response to being romantically spurned - but even in the second section there are some more tender elements to the music.

This is followed by the Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131, which, for me, is far more than the “sort of leftover from the trilogy commissioned by Galitzin.” as suggested by Jean-Paul Montagnier in the booklet notes. Certainly, it has an unusual construction; its seven movements are more than any other Beethoven quartet, although some might be viewed as sections of the same movement. Unlike the opening of the Op. 95, here we begin quite pensively, the Cuarteto Casals showing great control in the opening Adagio, shaping each of the phrases beautifully. This leads into an Allegro; traditionally, this quartet is performed without breaks, and here the linking passages come off well. The Allegro has a beautiful main theme which the Cuarteto Casals play sensitively and flexibly. Their transition into the third and, at less than a minute, shortest movement, another Allegro, is measured and sleek. This is followed by the longest movement which, for me, is the one which predominates over all the others. Again, the control in this Andante is near perfect, and the following Presto is a real joy, the sheer exuberance of its writing matched by the playing. We are taken back to the more pensive atmosphere of the sixth movement Adagio before the quartet concludes with a thrillingly inventive Allegro.

The final quartet of this set, which here gets a disc all to itself, is the B flat major Quartet Op. 130, which here incorporates the original final movement, the ‘Grosse Fuge’ Op. 133 in its original position as the sixth and final movement, with the published second-thought ending coming next. This seems to have become the norm these days, although I do have a couple of recordings where the ‘Grosse Fuge’ doesn’t even appear on the same disc. The performance here is excellent throughout; whether you play the movements as first envisaged or as published, this is a strong reading of Beethoven’s thirteenth quartet. For me, the Cuarteto Casals, along with the second recording made by the Tokyo Quartet (HMU 807641.48), make the strongest case in their performance for reinstating the ‘Grosse Fuge’ as the final movement of the B flat major Quartet; both offer muscular readings that makes the most of Beethoven’s fugal writing. The Overtura acts as a bridge between the Cavatina fifth movement, with its sense of trepidation, before the fugal section, where Beethoven pushes the boundaries of the fugue beyond its boundaries; it explodes and gives the work a real sense of realisation and an ending. I have always preferred the ‘Grosse Fuge’ as the conclusion to this quartet, and this performance only reinforces my opinion. Yes, at the time of its composition it presented difficulties to performers and audience alike, but these days the string quartet has developed to the extent that the ‘Grosse Fuge’ lies within most groups’ repertoire, leading to a better performance than was achievable in Beethoven’s time and to greater audience enjoyment. The last movement of this set is, therefore, the published final movement Allegro, which here acts as a kind of appendix to the quartet and the set as a whole. It is given an equally strong performance, but for me, lacks that sense of conclusion that you get when the ‘Grosse Fuge’ is the final movement.

This is a wonderful set which brings the Cuarteto Casals’ survey of the complete Beethoven string quartets to a glorious conclusion. Strong, muscular performances throughout with the addition of wonderful sensitivity when called for, make this set, and series as a whole, a leading contender amongst recordings of the quartets; it will certainly be the version that I turn to most. The recording is well balanced and quite natural, bringing out every nuance of Beethoven’s wonderful music. The brief notes, in French, English and German, are informative and add to the listening enjoyment. All in all, this is an excellent presentation; if you invest in no other recording than this, along with its companion sets, in Beethoven’s anniversary year, it will make you more than happy.

Stuart Sillitoe

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