Ludwig van Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets

Beethoven Early String Quartets
Beethoven Middle String Quartets
Beethoven Late String Quartets
Beethoven String Quartets Live (DVD)

beethoven late quartetsMmm . . . two of my favorite things in one review: Beethoven and string quartets. I willingly confess to a weakness for chamber music: I feel toward a composer’s small-scale works much the way I do about works for solo piano or an artist’s drawings, although a string quartet is much more likely to be a “finished” piece, by necessity. But composers often put ideas into their chamber works that don’t make it into larger orchestral works. (One need only think of Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets, much more adventurous and challenging than anything he could risk with a symphony under the Stalin regime.) By their very nature string quartets are intimate affairs, at least in the context of performance — they aren’t necessarily small-scale in concept at all.

The Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický and Jan Schulmeister, violins; Jiří Žigmund, viola; Aleš Aleš Kaspřík, cello) has, in the tradition of many illustrious ensembles before them, undertaken to record the complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets. This has been released in three volumes, the early, middle, and late quartets, and an accompanying DVD of live performances of nine of the sixteen, as well as the Grosse Fuge, which was originally intended to be part of a quartet but was published separately.

The “early” quartets are early only in relation to those that followed — Beethoven was thirty when he completed the last of the Op. 18 works, and on hearing the opening bars of Op. 18, No. 1, there is no doubt that it is the work of a mature artist, an impression that only gains force as the work progresses.

Beethoven being Beethoven, one soon realizes that the three works of Op. 59, the “Razumovsky” quartets, push the envelope quite a bit. Only six years separate them from the Op. 18 works — well, six years and the “Eroica,” Symphony No. 3, which recast the idea of symphony, pushing it out of the Haydn/Mozart mold into new territory. The Op. 59 quartets likewise significantly alter the idea of chamber music. Technically, they are beyond the skill of most amateurs, who had been the mainstay of such small-scale works in the past. (Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, to whom they were dedicated, was an accomplished amateur himself who sometimes joined his resident quartet in performances. One wonders how he negotiated these works, if he did.) Conceptually, as well, these works expanded the possibilities of the string quartet — in spite of being limited to four string instruments, they are large works, sometimes feeling almost monumental, and they explore emotional territory in ways that a symphony can’t.

All this is by way of priming you for the “late” quartets, in my mind among the most profound musical works ever created. They were all completed in 1826, and can leave you gasping if you’re really listening. The high point for me has always been the third movement of the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, known familiarly as the “Heilige Dankgesang“, the “prayer of thanks” — Beethoven had been seriously ill and considered his recovery nothing short of miraculous. It is, quite plainly, one of the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard. (A personal note: the first time I ever heard this was at a concert by the Fine Arts Quartet in Chicago many years ago. I sat there, tears streaming down my face, while my partner was vainly fishing around for a tissue. I have to say, it took me completely by surprise.) It just goes to show that Beethoven is not all “Sturm und Drang,” although there is enough of that in evidence in these quartets — somewhat amazingly so, when one considers the forces employed.

As for the musicians — this is a very clean rendering, by which I mean not displaying much in the way of personal quirks. It’s all Beethoven, played with intensity and focus, which comes through vividly in the 2-disc DVD released in conjunction with this three-volume set of CDs. There’s a great deal of intelligence apparent in their approach, as well as tight discipline and an apparent unity of thought — not to mention a deep sensitivity to and appreciation of the music. There’s good energy involved here. The quartets were recorded live from a series of concerts in 2007-08, the first ever complete Beethoven quartet cycle performed in Prague, and it says much for the performers’ abilities that I caught no missteps. The DVD was filmed at the Convent of St. Agnes during the concerts. The DVD presents performances of nine of the works on the CDs, including the Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, Op. 133, which was originally written as the final movement to the Op. 130 quartet, but proved to be more than audiences — and performers — could comprehend. (Stravinsky remarked of it that it “will be contemporary forever.” I think he was probably right — no one’s really caught up to it yet.) The DVD includes a charming and casual feature on the quartet’s founding (and it’s surprising how many distinguished ensembles have their origins with a group of students who want to play chamber music), while the booklets accompanying the CDs contain detailed movement-by-movement analyses of the quartets.

All in all, a worthy addition to our basic library of classical music.

(Wyastone Estate/Nimbus Alliance, 2009) [Wihan Quartet]

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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