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CD Review

Ludvig van Beethoven

Complete String Quartets

  • String Quartet #1 in F Major, Op. 18 #1
  • String Quartet #2 in G Major, Op. 18 #2
  • String Quartet #3 in D Major, Op. 18 #3
  • String Quartet #4 in C minor, Op. 18 #4
  • String Quartet #5 in A Major, Op. 18 #5
  • String Quartet #6 in B Flat Major, Op. 18 #6
  • String Quartet #7 in F Major, Op. 59 #1
  • String Quartet #8 in E minor, Op. 59 #2
  • String Quartet #9 in C Major, Op. 59 #3
  • String Quartet #10 in E Flat Major "Harp", Op. 74
  • String Quartet #11 in F minor "Serioso", Op. 95
  • String Quartet #12 in E Flat Major, Op. 127
  • String Quartet #13 in B Flat Major, Op. 130
  • String Quartet #14 in C Sharp minor, Op. 131
  • String Quartet #15 in A minor, Op. 132
  • Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
  • String Quartet #16 in F Major, Op. 135
Tokyo String Quartet
Sony Classical 88691975782 9CDs
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This set from Sony is a reissue of the aggregation that was first released in 2012 of the Tokyo String Quartet's outstanding Beethoven cycle recorded from 1989 to 1992 in (Dallas and) Princeton. That university was the one with which the Tokyos had such a long and profitable association before the ensemble's dissolution in 2013, with only Ikeda and Isomura remaining from those years. Individual CDs and sets were first issued on Sony over 20 years ago. The box of nine CDs comes without booklet or any details other than basic track listings and the fact that Pinchas Zuckerman is the second viola in the C Major Quintet, Opus 29. It's certainly one of the more compelling Beethoven quartet cycles and should be considered seriously by anyone attracted (or conceivably even new to) the repertoire.

Even a re-release of a reissue is welcome: these performances have a great deal going for them. Foremost, perhaps, is the way in which the four musicians play as a unit, not separate individuals. Although each string player also has the technique and depth of interpretative analysis for each musical line to be both beautiful and potent in its own right, the sense that these are quartets, not single opportunities for virtuosity, is uppermost: listen to the turns and twists which the final, allegro, movement of Opus 18/2 [CD.1 tr.8] takes, for instance. The changes in pace, texture and musical idea are held together wonderfully by the Tokyos. To achieve unity of melodic and harmonic spirit is something of a challenge; at the end of these performances, though, it's Beethoven's abstract conception, and successful transition from the containment of a Haydnesque motif to promises of previously unimagined depths based on Beethoven's supreme confidence that stay with us.

Although bursting with energy, the string sound does not tire the ear in the way that some more "forward" and/or unrestrainedly demonstrative performances and recordings can do. Listen to the momentum, the sense of vivid purpose in the first movement of the first "Rasumovsky", Opus 59/1 [CD.4 tr.1], for example. You'll be struck at the same time by the generous and rounded tone of the cello in particular. The Tokyos have the great skill of blending direction with sensitivity. The same expertise is evident during the contrapuntal passages towards the middle of that movement: the various string lines dance around one another. But not merely for the sake of dancing, or moving without purpose. Rather to create an almost self-effacing whole, of which Beethoven was surely more aware than he was of the component techniques. This has the nett effect of matching purpose and consistency in how we hear the music as we listen to the quartets in succession.

Given that you are likely to want to expect a consistent approach with the cycle, this is no small advantage. The tone of the playing is less insistent than that of, say, the Végh, reviewed here recently (Naïve 4871). That's not to say the Tokyos are more "refined" or genteel. Nor that they lack vigor and punch. Rather, that their sense of what it is to be a well-established quartet playing central repertoire is a perfectly fine basis from which to explore the cycle. Novelty and excess have no place. Sweetness and elegance win over peaks and troughs.

It's perhaps in the intensity of the late quartets that the characteristics of the Tokyos' approach is at its clearest: each movement of Opus 130 [CD.8], for instance, unfolds in a self-contained and apparently unemotional way. There's no lingering, savoring of the heat and cold. The tempi are relatively brisk. Yet not a nuance is missed. You expect the Cavatina to be played with as much sensitivity as the pace of the faster movements has been successfully "captured". And that's just how the players approach it. There is careful articulation of the melodic curves – as they unfold around the half way point [CD.8 tr.5, at 4 minutes]. Yet there is just as much panache and drive as the movement reaches the conclusion, which the Tokyos make inevitable.

Indeed, it's this emphasis on the music as Beethoven wrote it, rather than any attempt to impose their interpretation that also marks this excellent cycle. This transparency is neither pedestrian nor simple, though. Still less predictable. The "reach" of the music is never neglected. Yet it somehow comes to us from within the score, not in the studio. The muscularity of the Große Fuge is an excellent case in point. While there is no waywardness, bluster or overblown mannerism, the music is heard without restriction. By the end, we are in no doubt that Beethoven has demanded our attention, kept it and only let it go when he is ready. The Tokyos, in short, are eloquent advocates for Beethoven's world, priorities and invention.

The Tokyo Quartet plays the cycle in broadly chronological order: but CD 5 has quartet numbers 8 and 10, while CD 6 has 9 and 11 and CD 8 follows Opus 130's fifth movement with Opus 133; then returns to the rondo allegro finale. This order of the quartets generally seems the most satisfactory one, and to be preferred to the Early-Middle-Late couplings often employed in recital; it's revealing in its own way. Here, though, given the players' familiarity with and love of the music, the journey which Beethoven took in the medium is fully revealed to us.

The acoustic of the Richardson Hall at Princeton is close, intimate and dry. While not showcasing or over-exposing the Tokyos' string sound, this venue never for a moment conceals or compromises the subtleties of the playing so successfully sustained over 19 works (CD 1 contains the F Major Quartet after the Opus 14/1 Piano Sonata and CD 8 the Große Fuge as well as the aforementioned Quintet). Every moment of every pizzicato can be heard as well as the changes in dynamic as the lush but contained (arco) string sounds. The miking, though, is never too close. Nor is the air of intimacy contrived to suggest forced conviviality. It's as if the enduring qualities of this most profound of repertoires are extracted by the playing, not the engineering. But nevertheless supported by balance and a sense of quartet space. It's tempting to say that one cannot have too many sets of the Beethoven Quartet cycle. With playing of this quality and at this price (all nine CDs can be found for barely the cost of one CD now), this is a cycle that can be recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey