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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (1825)
String quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825) (with the original finale, Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, 1826)
Tetzlaff Quartett
rec. 2019, Sendesaal, Bremen
ONDINE ODE1347-2D [42:41 + 44:16]

I warmly welcomed the Tetztlaff Quartett’s recording of Schubert and Haydn quartets, making their disc a Recording of the Month back in April 2017 (review) and this is their latest release. Headed by one of the world’s great violinists in Christian Tetztlaff, the string quartet now tackles two seminal works, opting to include the original, “unplayable” finale of Op. 130 rather than the infinitely sunnier – possibly ironically so - substitute version which Beethoven produced under pressure from his critics, audience and publisher, replacing the Grosse Fuge with something more accessible to the “cattle” and “asses” who could not stomach its stark, even weird, complexity.

That movement endures as a separate work, Op. 133; it is an immense double fugue which among Beethoven’s late oeuvre remains uniquely difficult for its performers purely in terms of technical execution but whose aesthetic is equally challenging to the listener. As Stravinsky observed, it still sounds utterly “contemporary” and will always seem so. That finale is preceded by surely the most profound and beautiful slow movement Beethoven ever wrote in the Cavatina.

Sequentially, despite the opus numbers bestowed upon them on publication, Opp. 132 and 130/133 were the second and third of Beethoven’s six last quartets, written in 1825. The emotional core of No. 15 is of course the extended Hymn of Thanksgiving which is the third movement and the Tetzlaff make the most of its keening, strangely beautiful chorale. The returns to the upward-leaping sixth motif which opens the movements are tenderly played before the searing, slow-motion drama of the conclusion, floating on a whisper of tone from all four instruments. The jaunty little march which ensues comes almost as a sacrilege after such repose, but its gypsy coda is of course just a teasing prologue to the impassioned finale.

No. 13 is, by and large, a more overtly melodic and thus approachable work than no. 15 until we arrive at the Grosse Fuge but its strongly contrasted moods and sudden alternation of speeds can still make it an almost unsettling experience even before we encounter that startling finale. The Tetztlaff Quartett is utterly in command of those juxtapositions, never allowing the disparate components of the quartet to fragment or the tension to drop but rather melding them into a sustained musical experience. The crazy little Presto is delivered with bravura and a suitably demonic aggression before the flowing Andante is despatched with wit and what almost amounts to nonchalance; the pizzicato cello passages are delightfully insouciant. The light-hearted mood - astonishing given the trials of Beethoven’s private life at the time of composition – carries over into the skipping, quick triple-time ‘German Dance’, winningly played, before we embark on the Cavatina. As with Op. 132, the slow movement is at the heart of Op. 130 despite all the other incidental beauties of the work, and for me any performance of that quartet stands or falls by it. It is marked ‘Adagio molto espressivo’; here I encountered my only disappointment with the Juilliard Quartet’s 1960’s recording of the complete quartets that I recently reviewed which for me lacked serenity.

There is scope for a divergence of opinion about how this movement should be played; preferences depend first upon choice of tempo and the resultant raw timings. My favourite versions by such as the Alban Berg Quartet can take as long as seven minutes whereas the Tetzlaff Quartett take only five and a half. However, momentum and flow also matter and the issue is whether this most expansive of melodies is allowed to breathe as it should. I did a little test and played to my wife the slowest by the Alban Berg and this version, which happens to be the fastest in my collection. She preferred the Tetzlaff here for their propulsion, whereas I still adhere to a more languorous affect of the Alban Berg. Far be it from me to demur at Mrs Moore’s judgment, so I leave it you and suggest you sample first. What I can safely assert is that the Tetzlaff’s playing here is as mellifluous as one could wish, even if their chosen tempo is faster than I am used to, and this divine music emerges intact.

About the Grosse Fuge it is difficult to know what to say that has not been said before - and still it remains a baffling wonder. Certainly the dynamic range and variety of textures and sonorities the Tetzlaff achieves here is astonishing and one could not ask for a more committed and skilful advocacy of this most exhilarating and provocative of movements.

The sound here is remarkably rich, vivid and well-balanced, allowing us to hear all four voices clearly – although just occasionally Christian Tetzlaff’s lead violin comes across as a tad insistent and even strident, perhaps because he is also a renowned concert soloist. Vibrato is used very sparingly, intensifying both the mournful air and the more macabre elements of the music, such the ghostly sul ponticello passage which occurs first half way through the second movement of No. 15 and are especially effectively executed. To my amateur ears, this is peerless quartet-playing throughout.

Ralph Moore

Performers: Christian Tetzlaff (violin) Elisabeth Kufferath (violin) Hanna Weinmeister (viola) Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)

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