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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
Quatuor Stanislas
rec. 1994-2019, Salle Poirel and Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1701-08 [8 CDs: 512:32]

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the Quatuor Stanislas. In 2018 I reviewed their recording of the complete string quartets of Henri Sauguet. Other forays into recherché repertoire have included the chamber music of Louis Thirion (review), the Joseph-Guy Ropartz string quartets (review) and the chamber music of Jean Cartan (review). With this release of the Complete String Quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven they are on firm, familiar territory. The ensemble was founded in 1984, and this cycle was released to coincide with their 35th anniversary in 2019. It was recorded live in two locations: the Salle Poirel and the Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy between 1994 and 2019.

Having listened to Beethoven’s quartets many times over the years, I’m struck by how intimate they feel. His predecessors Haydn and Mozart wrote wonderful quartets, but Beethoven took the genre to a new level, forging new ground in striving for his vision. Whilst the Op 18 early quartets are indebted to Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s fingerprints are there as he tries to discover his own voice. Elegant and refined, the first two in F major and G major convey a Haydnesque charm and the Quatuor Stanislas imbue them with refinement and elegance accordingly, especially in the slow movements where the lyricism is eloquently contoured. The opening movement of No 5 in A major is vigorous and athletic, and Laurent Causse on first violin keeps the virtuoso line light and buoyant. In contrast, the C minor’s first movement is sombre and brooding, and I’m taken by the way the players capture the tension and drama of the music. On the other hand, the gypsy swagger of the finale is both playful and tongue-in-cheek.

Progressing to the ‘middle period’ quartets, we encounter music with more potency and depth. These larger-proportioned works include the three Op 59 quartets, Op 74 and Op 95. They’re not only more psychologically intense, but exact greater technical demands from the players. The Op 59 set were commissioned by Count Razumovsky, a patron of the arts and Russian Ambassador in Vienna. No 1 is my particular favorite. The Quatuor Stanislas adopt comfortable tempi and play with flexibility and a true sense of purpose. The third movement is marked Adagio molto e mesto and its spiritual and mystical qualities make it the emotional heart of the work. A new day dawns in the Russian-flavored finale, which brims over with verve and vigour. Of the next two quartets, Op 95 seems to me to be one of the most difficult of the cycle to bring off. It’s more structurally compact and the string scoring sounds leaner. Nevertheless, this reading satisfies for its dramatic intent. The Allegretto second movement is particularly striking for its tender elements. After the Larghetto espressivo introduction to the finale the ensemble really dig in and produce some powerful, accented and hair-raising playing.

New paths explored characterize the five late quartets, and in these sublime works the composer was to revolutionize the genre. They occupied him for the final two and a half years of his life.  The Quatuor Stanislas invest their readings of these works with both interpretative insight and impeccable musicianship. In the String Quartet No 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 131 we embark on a remarkable journey as we are guided through all seven movements. Similarly, there’s a logical inevitability running the course of Op 132 in A minor. The Grosse Fuge is tight, focussed and precise. In fact, the whole spectrum of human emotion is to be found in these late masterpieces.

These immensely satisfying performances have all the gripping frisson that a live recording affords and, what’s more, they’re unhindered by extraneous noise. Superbly packaged, there’s a beautifully produced booklet in French and English.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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