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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
Quatuor Schäffer
rec. 1957-1959, Schola Cantorum, Paris

Here's a rare Beethoven String Quartet cycle, set down by the Quatuor Schäffer in the Schola Cantorum, Paris between 1957 and 1959. The LPs were issued on Le Club français du Disque, a short-lived label which existed from 1953 until 1968. Formed in 1948, how long this ensemble continued is a mystery, but the line-up is as follows. The first violinist Kurt Schäffer was a professor in Salzburg and Düsseldorf. Second violinist Franzjosef Maier played an important role in the musical life of Cologne and founded the ensemble Aureum Collegium. Franz Beyer was lead viola in the Chamber Orchestra of Stuttgart and played in the Strub Quartet. He also taught in Cologne and Düsseldorf, as did cellist Kurt Herzbruch. My only previous encounter with them was via a disc of Schubert quartets dating from 1958 (review).

Beethoven's String Quartets take the listener on a spiritual journey. As a whole they cover a wide emotional range with substance that's immensely varied. So, what have the Quatuor Schäffer got to offer? I find their playing has a natural quality, with nothing forced or self-conscious. As an ensemble they have a singularity of vision, and don't perform as four separate soloists. They can be refined and reflective, yet can offer vim and vigour when called for. Rugged, reflective, lyrical and sublime are the qualities I look for, and the Schäffer deliver all consistently throughout the cycle. Their sound is uniform and smooth, and intonation is, at all times, pure. Spontaneity is also high on their list of achievements.

It's in the ground-breaking late quartets that the Schäffers particularly excel. Here the composer takes a leap from maturity to exploration and breaks new ground. As I listen, I'm aware of untrodden paths opening up, a voyage of discovery. Take No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131. Completed in 1826 and dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, it was Beethoven's favorite. The Belcea Quartet described it as ‘forty-five minutes of music unfolding continuously without the slightest break – a veritable musical odyssey’. The Schäffers penetrate its secrets in a wonderful performance, interpretively bold, musically satisfying. The Grosse Fugue I also admire for its feverish intensity. The Op. 132 in A minor is another highlight. A lengthy, complex score, they have an instinctive feel for the narrative.

Forgotten Records issued this cycle chronologically over a five-year period between 2013-2017. It comprises of ten CDs, which take the form of five two-CD sets, only available separately; it isn’t being offered as a single entity.

The restorations are first class, and Forgotten Records have preserved the warmth and intimacy of the originals. All of the quartets were recorded in stereo, and the ambience of the Schola Cantorum is favourable in revealing both detail and balance. The label provides no accompanying notes with these releases and, as I said at the beginning of my review, you'll be hard pressed to find anything on the internet.

The cycle may not be a first choice for those seeking a place to start, but it should certainly appeal to seasoned listeners.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review (v5): Jonathan Woolf

Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 [33:18]
Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2 [25:26]
Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18/3 [27:33]
Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18/4 [27:03]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 881/2 [58:14 + 54:36]

Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18/5 [30:59]
Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18/6 [28:34]
Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ [41:11]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 1141/2 [59:33 + 41:11]

Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59/2 [41:03]
Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59/3 [32:42]
Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 [34:04]
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ [23:33]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 1253/4 [73:46 + 57:39]

Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 [41:42]
Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 [45:09]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 1263/4 [41:42 + 45:09]

Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 [41:57]
Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 [19:20]
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 [46:13]
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 [28:12]
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR 1358/9 [61:20 + 74:27]

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