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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
Lindsay String Quartet
rec. 1979-1983; Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth, Yorkshire; Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead. ADD/DDD
ELOQUENCE 484 3069 [10 CDs: 555 mins]

This release from Eloquence is of the first survey of the Beethoven quartets by The Lindsay String Quartet (LSQ). It originally appeared on ASV. I already have them in a cheaper box (released 2005) which is still available. This begs the question why the set has been released, again.

As “The Lindsays”, they did a second traversal of the Quartets, plus extra works, in the early 2000s. That was released on nine single full-price CDs, again on ASV. I’ve hoped that this second series would be boxed up in a set. I have this traversal and regard it as full of the genuine spontaneity that this quartet produced.

I was fortunate to see them three times in late 2004 in the first half of a complete cycle, in Cumbria. The only change in personnel was the viola player, Robin Ireland replacing Roger Bigley. It was one of their last projects before they disbanded in 2005.

As far as sound is concerned, from a spot-check with the older box, this new Eloquence release has clearly been re-mastered and the result is a sharper presence from the players. Whilst, I was not fortunate enough to see this earlier combination, the vivid recording does take me back to hearing them “in the round” in the intimate setting of “The Old Laundry” Bowness, Cumbria.

The present set has always been highly regarded amongst the top performances of these ever-rewarding works and returning to them is a great pleasure. What follows are observations on each quartet from what I feel remains an awesome achievement to which it has been a privilege to listen.

The first three CDs contain the six Quartets from Opus 18, composed when Beethoven had reached the age of thirty. He had deliberately delayed composing quartets until around the time of his First Symphony. He had composed string trios, sonatas and a highly successful septet but right from the start of the First Quartet we feel a composer confident in the medium; the same can be said of the LSQ. After the strident opening movement, we have the Adagio inspired by Juliet’s tomb. The LSQ brings the sense of sorrow without descending into excessive beautification. Great quartet performances are like four-way conversations and how well these four musicians do converse. Talking with Peter Cropper, the leader of LSQ for forty years, he told me that, technically, the Opus 18 works are the hardest, of the Quartets. This surprised me as I thought that would be the Late Quartets but whatever the difficulties, the LSQ seem to get under the skin of Beethoven and convey the music in an intimate, never showy fashion. The later set may be “freer” in places, which has attracted criticism from some quarters, but I’m just grateful that they both exist. The final movements here show how far Beethoven had taken the medium since Haydn, in whom the LSQ excelled. They show his dominance of a medium that influenced almost all string quartets afterwards. There is also a sense of humour which is not always a feature considered in these works.

The chronological sequence adopted seems to be the most satisfactory. Although there is no obligation to stick to this, that is what I did in fact do. I generally gave myself a break after each quartet, to let what I’d heard sink in, as one might do after a concert. The LSQ had taken time fully to get to know the works and I felt that listening to them was not to be rushed. Quartet No 2 is sometimes referred to as the “Compliments Quartet” after the beginning when each instrument answers each other. It was one of the first of these quartets that I got to know. The LSQ seem to have more swing than the Talich (Calliope/La Dolce Volta) which was my first set - in 1988 - and was reviewed on reissue in 2013 by Mark Sealey where he covered most of the key entries in his introduction; I’ve heard the majority of them. There’s a lightness of touch as well as sonority here in the Adagio/Allegro and the interplay between the instruments is perfectly captured. This reinforces the merits of Eloquence’s re-mastering and also points up the echoes of Adolf Busch who had a key influence on Peter Cropper as referred to in the insightful notes by Tully Potter. It’s a cliché but I feel I’m hearing Beethoven’s Beethoven and the youthful exuberance of that then thirty-year-old composer.

The merits of the first CD carry over in the subsequent two containing the remainder of Opus 18. Opus 18/3 is as fine a performance as I’ve ever heard and the sound is very tangible throughout. I was especially taken by the opening movement of Opus 18/4 which I heard explored in great detail by the late Christopher Rowland, formerly of The Fitzwilliam Quartet who made two fine late Beethoven recordings which I have on Eloquence. As pointed out by Tully Potter, the LSQ repeat the Minuet twice, after the Trio, in this C minor work. This follows Beethoven’s indications, though many Quartets don’t observe this pattern. The latter two movements, in particular seem to carry on from the “Late” Haydn Quartets. It’s sometimes forgotten that in his earlier years of composition, Haydn was a stronger influence on Beethoven than Mozart, particularly in the medium of chamber music. In this Quartet, the effective re-mastering was most apparent and the church venues just right as an acoustic. The recording places the listener two or three rows back at most so one is eavesdropping on the performers. There is no extraneous noise as sometimes occurred in later performances.

Well as I think I knew these works, I felt that I was listening afresh and the remarkable inventiveness and skill of Beethoven is wonderfully conveyed. Take any movement and the dedication is apparent in every note. I’ve never previously played all these works one after another and it was a sheer delight to do so. Staying true to the textures of the Quartet medium one can sense a connection to the Beethoven who had composed his innovative First Symphony in the same year. Playing all six Opus 18 in a fairly short period was a joy and if the set was available separately at budget price, it would be highly competitive; they can obviously be sampled in high quality on streaming sites. Opus 18/5, charms in the Menuetto/Trio. Opus 18/6, displays real harmony and swing in the opening forcefully frolicking Allegro con brio. There’s sheer joy in works that sound easy but where I’ve heard other quartets come unstuck. I could go into more detail here but it will be understood that there is a need to keep the review within reasonable length and unnecessary hyperbole. The playing throughout is superb and what they do illustrate is the sheer genius and inventiveness of “Early” Beethoven and how approachable his music is. In the final movement of Op 18/6 one gets a foretaste of what was to come, especially in the Late Quartets. Many who listen to countless recordings of his, admittedly fabulous, orchestral work, would gain great pleasure from hearing these works, particularly suitable at home and mindful of neighbours.

Throughout this set, the LSQ achieve that “Beethoven sound” referred to in the notes. There’s no saccharine but sincerity is there in droves. In the early years of this century, The Lindsays, with Robin Ireland replacing Roger Bigley (viola), recorded these works again. These have similar viability and have on offer two extra works, the Quintet Op 29, and the arrangement of Piano Sonata Op 14. These were reviewed by Christopher Howell.

Stephen Greenbank has assayed the Belcea Quartet issued on Zig-Zag Territoires. It’s a fine set at an even more competitive price (review) The Belcea are another highly-rated ensemble and one I’ve heard live in the Op 59 Quartets. Stephen wrote: “Beethoven reached a mature phase, his ‘middle period’, with works more powerful, profound and of larger proportions … These were commissioned by Count Razumovsky, a patron of the arts and Russian Ambassador in Vienna. The first two of the set have Russian themes”. When I saw the Belcea in the same venue at Bowness, they explained that when the original quartet, led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, first saw the scores, prior to the first performances in 1808, they rolled about in laughter and felt they would be impossible to play. Fortunately, they and other ensembles have managed to overcome the challenges. Like Stephen, I’m particularly fond of the First of these “Middle Quartets” Opus 59/1 and often go to this one when I acquire a new set. Reviewing the Borodin Quartet on Chandos, Michael Cookson affirms: “The Lindsay Quartet on ASV offer marvellous performances. Their insights are considered by many as unlikely to be surpassed in the modern recorded versions”.

I found the Lindsays’ performance of the first Razumovsky quite wondrous and the “inner voices” referred to by Tully Potter are very evident as is the freedom given to the cello, magnificently played by Bernard Gregor-Smith; truly the “rock” of the LSQ. In such a supreme collection, this stands out as one of the peaks. Fortuitously, this is alone on CD 4 so the listener hasn’t got to rush up to stop the next track and can absorb what he has heard. The LSQ continue their journey on CD 5 with the two remaining Razumovskys and it’s here that one can appreciate how far Beethoven had taken the medium. In the adagio of Opus 59/2 one can discern a bridge towards the later works. The four instruments all seem to have a voice of their own: take the opening movement of Opus 59/3; whilst maintaining the Quartet’s special structure. Listening to the second movement with violin answered by the plucking of the cello I recalled hearing the work in the Holywell Music Rooms. The exhilarating finale brings this part of the LSQ journey to a highly successful conclusion. I could happily play this disc repeatedly such is the magnificence and the LSQ reflect a composer who was coming to terms with increasing deafness. I have a set of Middle Quartets to review soon by “The Dover Quartet” (Cedille) and will do some detailed comparisons. Again, the LSQ observe all repeats - a practice I go along with. Their performance of Opus 59/3 is one of the finest that I’ve heard and certainly bears comparison with The Busch. It’s also in much better sound.

Disc 6 contains two Quartets that stand alone, although they are regarded as part of the “Middle Quartets” period. I’m particularly fond of Opus 74 “The Harp” after the plucking sound produced in the opening movement. I was once asked by an audience member, prior to a performance “where is the harp?” …. The LSQ again seem to be right into the work and one can enjoy the slightly less intense music although Beethoven is constantly moving the medium onwards. They seem to be able to wring intensity out of the slow movement without “prettification” of the sound. The second work is Op 95 “Serioso” from 1810 and here I will mention their later recording which I reviewed in 2010 in the excellent compilation “The Art of the Lindsays”. This was composed at an especially difficult time with Beethoven’s increasing deafness and financial worries. I said then “There’s the angst of mid-period Beethoven and a taster of what’s to come. The slow movement hints at the “late quartets” but also shows traces of earlier styles - even Handel”. I thought very highly of the later performance and feel the same way about this; the slow movement is a gem. In a quartet, that tends to be overlooked, the LSQ are mighty advocates. It will be appreciated, that although I know the second set, I’ve not undertaken comparisons, except for Op 95 “Serioso”, nor up to this stage, have I compared other sets that I own, although I’m very fond of the Quartetto Italiano and Takacs both on Decca, and The Vegh on Naïve. That said, the sound is generally better here, especially in this re-mastered form. Many hold The Alban Berg Quartet (Warner) in high regard and they are certainly well worth hearing in either their studio or live (DVD) sets. This is chiefly because of time and also to avoid the review being too verbose. The LSQ achieve high standards throughout; pick any quartet and be enraptured.

We now come to The Late Quartets. These are, along with the final three piano sonatas, amongst the last works Beethoven composed. The LSQ garnered awards when their set was released, initially on LP in 1984. They are a kind of “holy grail” of string quartets and there have been many fine performances. Here, I have also listened to some of the Wihan Quartet. They are on Nimbus and have been reviewed by Patrick C Waller in 2009 where he refers to the LSQ in these works. In 1983 The Gramophone stated “I should say straightaway that this is a most impressive set and contains some of the most searching late Beethoven currently on record. The Lindsays get far closer to the essence of this great music than many more glamorous ensembles”. In Opus 127, they adopt an appreciably slower tempo than the Wihan and by so doing give the music time to breathe, nor are they simply trying to play perfectly but fix on being true to the Beethovenian spirit. This also allows them fully to explore the diversity in the second movement when the Adagio slips into an Andante and then back to Adagio. The sound again is perfect for this intimate music with all four instruments captured adroitly. The LSQ performance seems to me entirely “right” and one can appreciate why it won such praise; at no stage does one feel they are self-regarding. The final two movements keep one’s full attention as Beethoven weaves the music in a manner that has bewildered contemporary listeners and admirers ever since. Just take the inter-weaving of the Finale which never fails to enrapture. I heard the later Lindsays play this live in 2004 and was similarly entranced.
Opus 130 follows and the CD format allows the full work with the Grosse Fuge and the alternative ending that Beethoven was obliged to write later, due to bewilderment caused by the original. On the remake CD, they play the preceding Cavatina twice, followed immediately by one of the two endings, so you can programme your machine as you wish. Here the alternative, shorter ending immediately follows the Grosse Fuge. Neither the Wihan nor the Artemis Quartet (Warner) include the alternative. Originally the LSQ LPs left it out purely because of the constraints of LP length but it’s here now. In his review of the Wihan, Patrick Waller describes hearing the LSQ play this work at The Crucible, Sheffield when the audience were left completely drained; many bought the LP on the spot. Again, listening to this work brought back memories of hearing the Lindsays play this live in 2004; I played their re-recording the next day and this version is similarly intoxicating. In the penultimate movement Cavatina, which made Beethoven weep, Peter Cropper said they recorded it in one take. The whole performance maintains that live feel. I just put down my notes and immersed myself in the performance. The LSQ tackle the Grosse Fuge splendidly but it’s not an easy listen nor should it be. Perhaps it’s better in the Weingartner string arrangement as performed by the Busch Chamber Players; also Otto Klemperer with The Philharmonia. I’m not sure if “enjoyed” is an apt adjective but I found it totally absorbing. There can hardly be a greater contrast than the alternative ending Allegro, which like Opus 135 was composed after. It firstly appears to be simple but then develops riveting complexities. Sets that leave this movement out are depriving the listener of a vital piece of the jigsaw and an indication that even near the end of his life, Beethoven had lost nothing of his compositional skill.

Opus 131 which occupies CD 9 is, in effect, a single movement. To my ears, only the Busch Quartet have plumbed such depths, although I look forward to exploring the justly famed Léner Quartet on Pristine; the latter very highly praised by Jonathan Woolf (review). Here again the engineers seem to have captured the sound faithfully so that listening at home one can visualise them playing in front of you. The inventiveness of Beethoven comes through in every bar and the twists and turns demand one’s full attention. The key movement may well be the fourth which ranges widely in speed and emotion. The pacing and playing here is perfect. I could go into much more detail but let it stand that this is of the highest order. If this was your only recording, you would have everything. That said, like many, I love the luxury of different interpretations; many for the price of a concert ticket. Opus 132, composed prior to Opus 131, has many of the same remarkable changes of tempo; just take the extraordinary second movement allegro where the themes keep diverging. My impressions of the LSQ remains one of captivation so I won’t repeat myself. Here the key movement seems to me the Heiliger Dankegesang (Hymn of Thanksgiving), a quite remarkable composition from the aging composer, unable to hear what he wrote, except in his head. This is one of those performances that remain in one’s memory for a very long time.
Beethoven’s final completed quartet Opus 135 may seem on first hearing to be returning to a simpler style The fact that string “expansions” (Bernstein et al) have been made might deceive. Tully Potter mentions that Beethoven might be having a joke about death; not unexpected. However, its outward simplicity is deceptive and I find it profoundly moving, which captured my imagination when I heard it live. Whilst not shaking my allegiance to the Busch Quartet in restored 78 glory (EMI/Warners), the LSQ certainly get inside the work. You hear this especially in the strange and disconcerting second movement Vivace where the strings furiously blaze away. I may agree that the LSQ don’t quite fathom the depths in the highly moving Lento but the reading remains most effective. The rasps of breath are just like a fly alighting on one’s arm; it doesn’t really signify. That last movement always puzzles me. The LSQ traverse its pitfalls with consummate ease but also humanity. It makes a fitting ending to a wonderful collection.

In his personal portrait of Peter Cropper, included in the notes, John Suchet, who knew Cropper from schooldays sums this set up. “The Lindsay String Quartet’s first recording stands alone. Listening to them brings us as close to Beethoven as we are ever likely to come”. Now in first-class sound with great notes, including reminiscences and photos, I can gratefully endorse this view. We have reached the end of a marvellously stimulating journey.
David R Dunsmore

CD 1 [55:36]
Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 18/1 (1798-1800) [31:18]
Quartet No 2 in G major, Op 18/2 (1798-1800) [23:59]
CD 2 [48:42]
Quartet No 3 in D major, Op 18/3 (1798-1800) [23:59]
Quartet No 4 in C minor, Op 18/4 (1798-1800) [24:20]
CD 3 [60:45]
Quartet No 5 in A major, Op 18/5 (1798-1800) [30:32]
Quartet No 6 in B-flat major, Op 18/6 (1798-1800) [29:40]
CD 4 [43:40]
Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [43:40]
CD 5 [71:14]
Quartet No 8 in E minor, Op 59/2 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [39:25]
Quartet No 9 in C major, Op 59/3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6) [31:23]
CD 6 [55:33]
Quartet No 10 in E-flat major, Op 74 ‘The Harp’ (pub. 1809) [33:21]
Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [21:48]
CD 7 [42:15]
Quartet No 12 in E-flat major, Op 127 (1824-25) [42:15]
CD 8 [61:09]
Quartet No 13 in B-flat major, Op 130 (1825-26) [45:00]
Große Fuge in B-flat major, Op 133 (1825-26) [16:00]
CD 9 [43:59]
Quartet No 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 131 (1826) [43:49]
CD 10 [72:21]
Quartet No 15 in A minor, Op 132 (1825) [45:13]
Quartet No 16 in F major, Op 135 (1826) [26:30]

Peter Cropper (violin I), Ronald Birks (violin II), Roger Bigley (viola), Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)

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