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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets Volume 2; the Middle Quartets
String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Rasumovsky’ (1805/6) [37:05]
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59/2 ‘Rasumovsky’ (1805/6) [31:22]
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59/3 ‘Rasumovsky’ (1805/6) [29:31]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ‘The Harp’ (pub. 1809) [33:29]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [21:27]
Léner Quartet
rec. 1926-32, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM109 [76:04 + 76:49]

The second volume (for volume 1, see review) in Pristine Audio’s restoration of the first ever complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets reaches the middle quartets. The majority was recorded between October and November 1926, though some of Op.59/1 saw retakes in March 1927 and the whole of the Harp Quartet had to wait until 1932.

It would be a bore to reprise here all the many reasons why I – and others – so admire the Léner Quartet, but some of the reasons can be found in my previous review. There is a generosity of music-making, and an expressive candour allied to some of the most sonorous and romantic corporate quartet playing on disc. These qualities animate everything the group did and sets them apart from the subtle wristiness of Franco-Belgian groups or the steelier imperatives of the Russians.

I need to correct one minor slip in my previous review and this is pertinent to the middle quartets. Japanese EMI released these quartets on a three-CD set (SAN 1553-5), not the twofer I suggested, whereas Pristine uses two discs by splitting Op.59/3 between them. Also, and this is especially important, Pristine have transferred the 1926 recording of Op.59 No.2 rather than the 1938 remake, which is what Japanese EMI transferred. So, this is not a like-for-like comparison, exactly, even though everything else is the same. Pristine’s pitch stabilization has worked well, moreover, and they have used American pressings in preference to the noisier British ones. There is therefore more surface noise on the Japanese disc though on a number of occasions a somewhat more vivid sense of the Wigmore Hall acoustic. The sound quality extracted by Mark Obert-Thorn for Pristine is extremely fine.

This enables one to hear the tonal qualities of the two violinists, Jenő Léner himself and Josef Smilovits, the amplitude and tonal breadth of violist Sándor Róth and the anchoring excellence of cellist Imre Hartman, whose portamenti are as pervasive as those of his colleagues. Try the third movement of Op.59/1 for examples of these particular qualities. The quartet is significantly more urgent in their 1926 recording here of Op.59/2 than they are in 1938, by which point they were almost at the end of their recording career and had already begun to be eclipsed by more glamorous, sleeker and less personality-rich ensembles. I happen to prefer that 1938 reading for its greater sense of relaxation and humanity in the slow movement but would agree that the 1926 is thoroughly consistent in terms of tempo relations and works well on its own terms.

It’s hard to know where to suggest sampling the performances here to see if they accord with your own perception of the music but perhaps the fugal passages of the Allegro molto finale of Op.59/3 would be a good place; such vitality and commitment. Or the first violinist’s slides in the opening of the Harp in the only recording here not made in Wigmore Hall. It was recorded instead in Abbey Road Studio No.3 and one can immediately hear how the more enclosed Wigmore acoustic is replaced by a greater sense of lateral spread. Each instrument seems now to inhabit its own distinct aural space whilst not imperilling the ensemble balance or devitalising or reducing the quartet’s inimitable romanticised tonal allure. It might in fact be preferable to play Op.95 ahead of Op.74 given the former was recorded in Wigmore Hall in 1926.

This is another memorable restoration and with one release left to run, this pioneering and compelling cycle will soon be available at a competitive price. It should never be out of print.

Jonathan Woolf

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