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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quintet in C major, Op 29 (1800-1801) [33:00]
String Quintet in C minor, Op 104 (1792/1817) [31:19]
Fugue in D, Op 137 (1817) [1:49]
WDR Symphony Orchestra (Cologne) Chamber Players
rec. 2019, Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany
ALPHA 585 [66:26]

The WDR Symphony Orchestra (Cologne) Chamber Players hardly bear a name that trips off the tongue. Yet judging by their recent recordings, notably of Brahms on Pentatone (the two String Quintets – review; the two Sextets on PTC 5186 807), the fine notices each has attracted confirm that a cumbersome moniker need be no impediment to success. Here they turn their attention to an underappreciated corner of Beethoven’s oeuvre, his own string quintets. That in C major, Op 29 is his single original work for the medium; much is made of its chronology by commentators who point to its overlaps with the six String Quartets, Op 18 which preceded it by a year or so and its harmonic, modulatory innovations which look ahead to the experimental features of the three Rasumovsky Quartets, Op 59. The Quintet in C minor, Op 104 with which it is coupled here is something of a curiosity, however; it’s a reworking of the much earlier Piano Trio Op 1 No 3 which Beethoven seems to have produced in 1817 as an act of conscious irony. The tiny Fugue in D Op 137 which concludes the new issue is a forceful late miniature which succinctly emphasises Beethoven’s mastery of the form.

The WDRs (please permit me this foreshortening) offer penetrating, likeable accounts of the two big works here which benefit from Alpha’s warm and spacious recording. I marginally prefer Alpha’s generous sound to that afforded by Naxos to the Fine Arts Quartet a few years ago on their (exactly) parallel disc (review). I also feel that there is a little more depth and mystery in these new accounts than in the competitor, especially in the first two movements of Op 29. The Alpha sound also has a tad more presence in the middle range of both works which inevitably works to the advantage of the two violas.

Had the C major Quintet been composed by another hand, perhaps one that hadn’t gone on to produce 16 separate masterpieces for four stringed instruments, it seems unlikely it would have met its fate of relative oblivion. Mozart’s half dozen essays in the form are regarded as the crown jewels of his chamber output whereas Beethoven’s single serious attempt at the form barely gets a look in. There are practical considerations, of course, such as what does one pair it with, in recital or on disc? The fact is that it is a wonderful work from the off, and the WDRs treat it with the care and attention it deserves, investing it with a breadth that (of the accounts familiar to me) is only really challenged by the Nash Ensemble’s sublime reading on Hyperion (CDA 67683 - Philip Dukes and Lawrence Power are matchless in the glorious tone they produce at the centre of things).

Straightaway the listener will relish the inviting orchestral lustre produced by the WDRs. The players adopt an appropriately easy-going pace while Alpha’s sound accommodates a perfect instrumental balance. The careful attention to dynamics paid by the first violin Ye Wu in her initial commentary on the opening theme is a noticeable quality that emerges throughout this group’s playing. There is richness to their sound without unnecessary luxuriance. Perhaps this has something to do with the players’ orchestral background. I would argue this reading is particularly forward looking, anticipating Beethoven the progressive rather more than pointing up the more classically inclined orientations of the earlier quartets. The blending of the individual lines that build up prior to the coda is exquisite. The group adopt an equally expansive approach for the glorious broad theme of the Adagio molto espressivo slow movement. From 1:36 the four note motif that gets tossed between the first violin and cello signals a little more freedom in the playing. Second violin Cristian-Paul Suvaiala’s pizzicato passages (from around 4:38) are most subtly incorporated into the weave. When the movement explodes into the dramatic Allegro phrase at 7:42 the comprehensive tonal palette offered by this ensemble comes into its own, a comment which equally applies to the ghostly fragility of the chords which conclude the movement. There is orchestral opulence in the Scherzo here – the rhythmic similarities to the equivalent movement in Beethoven’s broadly contemporary Second Symphony are especially pronounced, but when the lovely second subject emerges (a clear relation of the main theme) the contrast in timbre is dramatic and convincing. The high jinks at the outset of the concluding Presto are theatrical and virtuosic. The WDRs revel in the glories of Beethoven’s sonic universe as any orchestral player worth their salt would. The movement’s almost mellow second subject with its alternations of brusque emphasis and warmth is delightfully conveyed, while the humour at the movement’s heart is maintained until its final, succinct peroration. Encountering the C major Quintet in as polished and thoughtful a reading as this is a privilege; one can only conclude that its neglect is as undeserved as it is inexplicable.

It is certainly not a criticism to suggest that colouristic variety is rather less apparent in the WDR’s account of the opening movement of Op 104; its classical countenance is arguably more po-faced. Norbert Hornig’s informative note traces the Quintet’s unconventional genesis; Joseph Kaufmann, an enthusiastic amateur of modest talents daringly sent Beethoven an arrangement for quintet of his early C minor Piano Trio, Op 1 No 3. Beethoven was hardly impressed but his interest had been sufficiently piqued to instigate his own version. On its completion he appended a rather sarcastic ‘dedication’ to Kaufmann. If the Viennese elegance that results is less distinctive than the more sophisticated charms of Op 29, it hardly sounds less appealing in the WDR players’ hands. An episode at 5:55 in the opening Allegro con brio hints at later Beethoven and arguably offers the potential for more variation in the colouring, which is certainly taken up by the players. The gentle cello-led passage at 7:28 is a wonder, lyrical and precious. The playing at the panel’s denouement is thrilling. The exceptional Alpha recording scrubs up most impressively in the delectable second movement Andante cantabile con variazioni. Yu We’s first variation is songful and winsome, while the grainier violas are delicately matched in the second. The contrast in the transition between the elfin passage from 3:54 and its melancholy, even terse successor at 5:11 is perfectly realised. The third movement Menuetto has elegance and mobility in spades. The WDR’s seem to hold back a fraction at the ff opening of the Prestissimo finale, if anything this emphasises the extensive dynamic range of the recording. The well-judged chasteness of the exchanges from 7:30 paves the way for the quintet’s unassuming ending. This is a coherent and expressive account of Op 104 by any measure. Alpha’s sound is again fulsome.

If nothing else the brief Fugue Op 137 is certainly the most ‘modern’ of all the pieces here – how strange it seems in this company, an extraordinary snapshot of the impossibly steep developmental curve Beethoven climbed between 1804 and 1817. It wraps up a splendid disc, a worthy rival for the Nash Ensemble’s accounts of these works (across two Hyperion discs – Op 104 features on CDA 67745) and the Fine Arts’ (with Gil Sharon) perfectly agreeable Naxos accounts.

Richard Hanlon

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