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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No 12 in E-flat major, Op 127 (1824-25) [34:51]
String Quartet No 13 in B-flat major, Op 130 (1825-26) [33:48]
String Quartet No 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 131 (1826) [39:57]
String Quartet No 15 in A minor, Op 132, 1825 [44:39]
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B-flat major, Op 133 (1825-1826) [16:50]
String Quartet No 16 in F major, Op 135 (1826) [21:01]
LÚner String Quartet
rec. London, 1926-35
Sound restoration - Mark Obert-Thorn
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM110 [3 CDs: 190:48]

This volume concludes Pristine Audio’s exploration of the first complete recorded cycle of the Beethoven quartets unless, for some reason, an ancillary volume is intended to present the alternative recordings the group made during their long traversal of the works from early electrics into the mid-1930s. The first volume (review) explored the set of Op 18 quartets, the second the mid-period works (review) and now we have the talismanic late quartet recordings. As adherents of the group will know, and as Mark Obert-Thorn reminds the reader in his producer’s note, more than one recording exists of certain works and in this set Pristine has opted for the 1926 recording of Op 135 rather than the 1935 remake. The later recording was the one selected by Japanese EMI [SAN 1556-58] in its own complete set of transfers made over two decades ago and handily reprinted in its booklet was a table of alternative electric recordings, which also included some details of the alternative takes used.

I’ve written before about the sometimes overwhelming expressive effect of the LÚner in the late quartets, in particular. The richness of their vibrato usage, the employment of pervasive portamenti and their cultivation of overtly pathos-laden phrasing all produce readings of almost heroic passion. What is also so fascinating is their corporate sound and its avoidance of rigorous ensemble in important respects. Listening to the violinists’ use of portamenti one can hear that both Jenő LÚner and the second violinist Josef Smilovits sometimes employed the device in different places and with different intent. In other words, they avoided uniform application of the device and it’s this sense of individuality - which some would perhaps criticise as arbitrary, casual and anti-intellectual - that gives their readings – Op 127 is a perfect case in point – such lasting power. It’s true that this individual approach to the use of portamenti can, occasionally, impede rhythmic dynamism on a bar-by-bar basis but to compensate the quasi-improvisatory quality generates a profound identification with the music, as do the various types of portamenti used (especially L-shaped ones) and the variety and intensity of vibrato used by the foursome.

They can’t truly surmount the challenges of the Grosse Fuge any more than can most other groups, nor do they grant the slow movement of Op 132 the heavenly length vested by the Busch, but I’m one who finds the Busch beautiful but over-indulgent here. The LÚner certainly catch the same quartet’s folkloric Allegro ma non tanto.

Much of the success of these new transfers lies in seamless side-joins and, most importantly, pitch stabilization. Good quality American pressings have been used except for Op 127 which was never released in the US and therefore comes from British pressings – fortunately it sounds fine. The recorded locations varied over the years so the individual room ambience, when it can be heard, subtly varies as well; Wigmore Hall, Columbia’s Petty France studio, and Abbey Road Studio No 3.

This series brings to wide attention a memorable sequence of recordings from one of the most intensely expressive and generous minded of all early quartets on disc.

Jonathan Woolf

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