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Beethovens Welt 1799-1851: Der Revolutionär und seine Rivalen
casalQuartett (Felix Froschhammer (violin), Rachel Späth (violin), Markus Fleck (viola), Andreas Fleck (cello))
rec. 1-3 November 2017; 30 May – 1 June 2018; 4-6 January, 2-4 June & 26-29 August 2019;
Kirche Bachs, canton of Zurich, & Kirche Wilchingen, canton of Schaffhausen, Switzerland
112 pp colour booklet
SOLO MUSICA SM283 [5 CDs: 311:52]

The concept behind this five-disc set is to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth by presenting the development of the string quartet in the context of Beethoven’s life and times, the influences upon him and how his music influenced others. The idea is selbstverständlich an engaging one, presenting a dozen string quartets spanning fifty years: seven of those are landmark works which are well established in the repertoire, two are less well-known quartets by Boccherini and Donizetti respectively, and, finally, three are world premiere recordings of virtually unknown quartets. Apart from the intrinsic interest in tracking how the genre evolved and listening to great music well played, there is an additional element of assessing whether any of the new music belongs to the “undiscovered masterpiece” or “justly neglected” category - or somewhere in between. Each of the first three discs includes a Beethoven quartet marking three stages in his oeuvre: his first quartet, a middle-period work, then his last, all set against the quartets of contemporary composers. The last two discs contain three works post-dating his death, prompting us to consider his legacy in the medium.

First, let me be clear that these are “historically informed” performances of the highest quality; this premier Swiss quartet – variously, if rather pretentiously known as the casalQuartett, the Casal Quartett and even cQ - uses 17th century instruments from the workshop of the famous maker Jacob Steiner, so their timbre is dusky and husky with minimal – but not non-existent - vibrato; they make a uniquely warm and beautiful sound. The intonation here is superb, the phrasing invariably sensitive and extraneous noises or accidents are non-existent; this really is the best of original instrument playing which capitalises upon all the virtues of period sensibility while eschewing its potential pitfalls.
 
I admit that my heart usually sinks a bit when I am presented with yet another “rediscovered gem”, as so rarely does the nut prove to be worth the cracking, so I approached the Gyrowetz quartet, here in its world premiere recording, with some apprehension. The playing is invariably lively and well-tuned and it is a pleasant, well-crafted piece which takes some unexpected turns. The vigorous, skipping, 6/8 Allegro finale is the most memorable movement and seems to be modelled on Mozart but ultimately it is rather formulaic and bland and the content inevitably sounds rather conventional to 20C ears. This becomes more evident when it is juxtaposed with the Haydn quartet which immediately follows it; Haydn’s work is melodically and harmonically more varied and inventive, suggesting darker undercurrents, but even that quartet pales when set against the final work on the disc, as Beethoven’s first foray into the medium marks a huge advance on Haydn’s, good as that is. It employs a typical Beethovenian trope of endlessly inventive variations upon, and developments of, a simple one-bar motif. As with all first-class playing, the listener forgets how effortlessly the casalQuartett cope with the technical difficulties encountered throughout the work; their virtuosity permits the music to emerge unencumbered by any such failings. However, it is not just in the pyrotechnic passages that they excel; the Adagio is as soulfully played as the filigree Scherzo and sparkling finale are insouciantly despatched.

The second disc begins with a work by Boccherini, a composer more usually associated with string quintets rather than quartets, even though he wrote 91 of the latter - although admittedly half of those are only two movements long and the F major quartet here has only three. It is his last quartet and is typically upbeat and animated in a moto perpetuo style reminiscent of Vivaldi. The music has none of the contrapuntal or polyphonic complexity of Haydn or Beethoven but it is endlessly melodic and entertaining, despite the personal misery which afflicted Boccherini in his declining years in the form of the deaths of his second wife and four daughters. The casalQuartett brighten their tone to infuse the music with Hispanic sunshine (Boccherini lived in Madrid) rather than the Sturm und Drang and revolutionary fervour which informs so much of the music of his era. The sensuous, swaying Siciliano is especially beguiling, and much in evidence is the new prominence Boccherini, himself a cellist, gives to the cello.

The most arcane work here is the quartet by the forgotten Peter Hänsel, which, like the Gyrowetz quartet, is presented in its world premiere recording. It owes much to his teacher Haydn and apparently Hänsel was also influenced by both Schubert and Beethoven, but on first hearing it sounds more like Mozart in form and texture, if without Amadeus’ capacity to surprise and delight. The virtuosity demanded of the lead violinist in both the outer movements here is an indication of how accomplished Hänsel must have been as a performer and the ease with which the casalQuartett the counterpoint belies its complexity. The short Adagio forms an oasis of calm before the rustic Polonaise and once again the performers show how they can deliberately coarsen their affect to accommodate a more rustic mood. As with his Op. 18 quartet, however, Beethoven’s Rasumowsky quartet marks a huge leap forward over the achievements of his contemporaries; following the mildly pleasant but essentially anodyne character of Hänsel’s quartet, Beethoven’s assaults the ear and makes it a willing prisoner. The ambivalence of the second movement, enigmatically poised between melancholy and repose, is especially well captured by the casalQuartett and their prestidigitation in the frantic Presto finale is simply astonishing. The music here is so much grander and more profound than anything that has come before, like moving from provincial theatre to the RSC.

The same is essentially true of the third phase charted here, culminating in the Op. 135 quartet, at least with regard to the difference between the quartets of Donizetti and Beethoven, although Schubert’s posthumously published No. 14 is, in my estimation, an equally great masterwork. Just as with Boccherini, Donizetti is no longer by any means thought of primarily as a composer of string quartets, yet he wrote nineteen. Unsurprisingly, his seventeenth played here is operatic in character: melodic and chordal in progression rather than contrapuntal. It is a brief work, the violin almost invariably taking the lead in long, lyrical lines like a soprano in one of his seventy-five operas; the Larghetto is almost sentimental in its sweetness, the little Scherzo is another song, but jollier, and the Allegro finale an overt tribute to Rossini in its imitation of his operatic overtures such as that to The Barber of Seville. It is consistently engaging, but the leap from its easy, flowing lyricism to the profundity of Beethoven’s last quartet is wide: Donizetti gives us the amiable persiflage of a prima donna surrounded by admirers while reminiscing on her career; Beethoven sets before us the conversation of four towering intellects: sharp, witty and sagacious – yet the sublimity of the Lento third movement then lifts us above the earthly into a higher sphere. I contend that Schubert’s quartet is the only one here to replicate that experience for the listener. Although Schubert was undoubtedly inspired by Beethoven and indeed is the only composer here whose artistic temperament bears a close affinity with his, there is no proof that they ever met. His D 180 is played here with formidable attack and passion – and considerable freedom in terms of phrasing and rubato, recognising that Schubert was every bit as innovative as Beethoven, pushing the string quartet into the realms of Romantic emotional fury and deepest melancholy. It gives cause once more for wonder that the greatest of Lieder writers should be able to suffuse this most popular of string quartets with drama, yet fail miserably in opera, which might have seemed to be a natural extension of his talents.

The rapturous sequence of variations on the “Death and the Maiden” theme is executed with extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity here; gradation of dynamics is given particular attention and the burring, purring quality of the period instruments, played straight with the merest hint of vibrato, lends extra gravitas and mournfulness to the movement. Apart from the ironically cheerful Trio, the emotional temperature never drops through the intense, driven Scherzo and the wild Presto - prestissimo finale, both executed with enormous panache. Despite my recognition of the supremacy of Beethoven’s quartets, this performance of Schubert’s No. 14 is for me the highlight of this set.

The remaining three quartets post-date Beethoven’s last and demonstrate his influence on those who followed him. Mendelssohn’s early Op. 13, the second he wrote, is of course immaculately crafted and of an overtly demonstrative nature. Mendelssohn quotes from Beethoven’s late quartets and also self-borrowing is evident in the dotted-note subject of the fast passages in the final movement which sounds very similar to that of the Scherzo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was written both as a response to the news of Beethoven's death and as an expression of unrequited love. Mendelssohn was already a seasoned composer of 18, a devotee of the Bonn master's music and in the grip of a passion for his neighbour Betty Pistor, who did not reciprocate his attachment except as a friend. It is wild, grim and passionate in mood and cyclical in structure, based on the motif of Mendelssohn's song "Ist es Wahr?" which immediately appears in the opening Adagio of the quartet. The second movement, also Adagio, begins with a yearning aria, then a tempestuous fugal second subject takes over as an homage to Bach before defaulting to the serenity of the beginning. The Intermezzo begins with a simple serenade played with great purity of tone and bookends a scurrying Trio typical of the composer, then the Presto finale is launched with the lament of the lead violin over a tragic tremolando and surges ahead in a violent outpouring of emotion before relapsing into the astonishingly bleak yet beautiful expression of despair with which the quartet opened. I find myself “narrating” the music here rather than commenting on the casalQuartett’s playing of it, because they so completely encompass its demands that such commentary becomes superfluous.

The Schumann quartet is also recognisably indebted to Beethoven. The casalQuartett brushes aside the difficulties posed by the rhythmic complications of the middle section of the first movement and plays the pounding sections of the second movement with admirable ferocity. The long, winding melody of the Adagio molto suggests consolation but is always laced with anxiety. Some find the finale optimistic and affirming; once again, I hear a more conflicted, perhaps even paradoxical, emotional complexity in its manic stutterings. When Schubert adopts this frenetic mode, I hear a reassuring sense of the music smiling through tears; here, with Schumann, we are grinning in the dark. I do not find the quartet as a whole as memorable or affecting as its partner on the fourth disc but mine has always been a qualified attachment to Schumann, whereas others are devotees. That has no bearing upon my acknowledgement of the supremacy of the playing here.

Czerny’s quartet was written a generation after Op. 135 but since he was ten years old, he had been close to Beethoven as his pupil, secretary, editor, performer of his works and friend. This recording of his No 28 is of interest, as most of his string quartets are missing and few have been recorded; this is a world premiere. As with all Czerny’s work I have heard, it is highly “professional” but lacking inspiration. The opening Allegro non troppo has something of Schubert’s songfulness about it and the frequent modulations add harmonic variety but the music remains oddly unmemorable and the sustained dominance of the first violin tends to limit the opportunities for other instruments to make their mark; this is more of a monologue against background chatter than a conversation. I cannot agree with the notes that the Andante is “a masterpiece” nor can I hear in it the “funeral March” alluded to, but like all the quartets here, it is obviously both expertly crafted and immaculately played. The Scherzo is in the scampering mode established by Beethoven and consolidated by Mendelssohn, with some exhilarating spiccato bow strokes. The finale returns us to the carefree mood of the opening movement. This is, to my amateur ears, music-making of a high order without the spark which elevates it further.

The Fleck family is clearly multi-talented: Markus, the violist of the casalQuartett, is also the graphic designer for this clamshell box set and the author of the extensive notes in German with a good, if not flawless (see below), English translation provided in the thick booklet complete with numerous colour photographs and illustrations, while his brother and cellist Andreas is instrumental in the technical, production aspects of these recordings. The notes themselves strike a perfect balance between furnishing some musical guidance and providing sufficient biographical background to allow the reader/listener to appreciate fully the narrative traced though this excellent set.

This programme elegantly and judiciously educates us in the development of the form. While Mendelssohn and Schumann clearly built on Beethoven’s achievement to create works almost of the same stature as those of the Bonn master, the compilation here serves first to illustrate the gulf between the mere talent of some of Beethoven’s antecedents and successors and secondly to confirm his and Schubert’s pre-eminence as innovators of artistic genius.

Ralph Moore

NB: There is a printing error at the foot of page 4 of the booklet (but not on the cardboard CD slipcover) regarding the Rasumowsky quartet, which should read “op. 59 No. 3” not “No. 1”, and there are one or two peculiarities in the English translation, such as in the discussion of Gyrowetz’s quartet, where on page 76, the German “Gassenhauer” (popular song) is translated literally as the meaningless “alley tusk”. There are a few more such “Google-translate” type errors, such as the translation of “Seit er (Czerny) 15 Jahr war gab er...Klavierstunden” as “Since he was fifteen years old, he gave…piano lessons”, not understanding that the tense and idiom are wrong and that the context makes the word “since” mean “because”. This might seem like nit-picking but meaning matters and as someone who many years ago worked briefly for a translation company and maintains an interest in languages, I am always surprised when even in prestige projects producers risk such solecisms by ignoring the golden rule of always employing a translator who is working from another language into his or her mother tongue.

Contents:

CD1 – 1799
Adalbert GYROWETZ (1763-1850)
String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21 No. 3*[21:26]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 77 No. 1, Hob. III:81 ‘Lobkowitz’ [23:11]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18 No. 1 [28:13]
CD2 - 1806
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
String Quartet No. 90 in F Major, Op. 64 No. 1, G. 248 [18:48]
Peter HÄNSEL (1770-1831)
String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20 No. 3* [24:33]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 9, Op. 59 No. 3 ‘Rasumowsky’ [31:6]
CD3 – 1826
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
String Quartet No. 17 in D Major, A. 481 [17:15]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 [24:20]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 'Death and the Maiden' [38:44]
CD 4 – 1827/42
Felix MENDELSSOHN Bartholdy (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 [29:40]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41 No. 3 [28:36]
CD5 -1851:
Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
String Quartet No. 28 in A-Flat Major* [24:50]
*world premiere recording



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