The Endellion String Quartet was founded in 1979 in Britain. It quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. And has gone from there to, arguably, the best ensemble of its kind in that country – although its touring commitments take it throughout the rest of Europe and the world. Here on Warner Classics is their highly desirable 10-CD set of the entire Beethoven quartet corpus. It can be said at the outset that this is a "keeper". The Endellions achievement is to have fused precision and technique with interpretative depth to arrive at a cycle which is accomplished and illuminating on every level.
This recording uses Jonathan Del Mar's new edition of the original Beethoven scores; old accretions have been questioned and usually dispensed with. If you want a single cycle (and are fully aware of the inevitable pitfalls of assigning all your interpretative eggs to one performing basket), this is likely to be the most satisfying currently available for those new to and familiar with the repertoire. Just a few minutes listening in whichever order you like (this cycle is broadly chronological – we can also enjoy the less well-known fragments, and string quintets etc) makes it plain just how broadly-based is the platform on which the ensemble stands in order not just to reach or scale the heights of the music, but gently pull it down into their hands and expose almost every aspect of its greatness. The Endellions do this with great ease and unselfconscious musicianship that's full of truly striking qualities – a thorough grasp of the idiom, tempi and sonorities required by Beethoven, from the sweetness of the adagio ma non troppo [CD.5 tr.6] of the "Harp" (Op. 74) to the insistent pizzicato in that quartet's first movement. They seem to get very close to the music as if tickling or teasing out a benign splinter from the skin. The attention is everything. And the pleasure (on removal) is intense. This is not to say the quartet knows the music to be anything other than delicious. Just that – for all its iconic status – they bring a quality of resilient and never over-gentile intimacy to their playing, while full of respect, awe and humility. Hard to do. But they've done it.
Another quality which the Endellions bring to this repertoire is delicacy. The opening of the third Razumovsky (Opus 59 #3 [CD.5, tr.1]), for example, has the grace and poise of quoits carefully jetted onto their poles – and with the complete lack of any elaborate showiness. Just a gentle flick of the wrist… or bows. It's a delicacy which aids our understanding of the world which Beethoven inhabited and was communicating in his at first perhaps somewhat self-conscious, then gently confident and finally ethereal and introverted string writing.
Coupled with that grace comes freshness. Surely one characteristic of any cycle or set that's to keep you company for years, even decades, to come is that it sound as good at fiftieth listening as on the day you brought it home. This must be true of these performances. It is. And it originates in a superb balance between engagement and distance, or – rather – an awareness of the big picture. Opus 59 #3 again: this time the second movement with its twisting first subject that's so hard to get out of your head (and even hard not to prolong as you improvise its ever moving melody). The Endellions here are fully aware of the impact that the theme is expected to make on a first time as well as on a listener wholly familiar with it. So, while unobtrusively "pushing" the key points, accentuating the moments which this melody relies on to stay alive in our heads after its actual performance has long gone, the players also somehow pull back from it as if the textures, the harmonies and the unexpected twists and breaks in the development, had only just been thought of and were being discovered now. Quite an achievement.
Undemonstrative strength and an appealing sense of reliability is also something that emerges pretty quickly as you listen to this cycle. In the Opus 18 (we get both versions of #1) [CD.s 1-3] there is something new revealed at every turning. Yet we are in such sure hands that we are decidedly not discovering such novelty, innovation and inventiveness with the Endellions. Rather, we watch as superb craftspeople fashion the only object that was ever possible from the molten glass. We can admire the object from many sides. But that's because it's been blown by experts who expect us to be able to do so. And delight in the fact that we can.
Then there's the sheer beauty of their playing – listen to the Adagio molto e nesto, the slow, third, movement, of the First Razumovsky (Opus 59 #1) [CD.4 tr.3], for example. In few if any comparable recordings is it played with such grace, and amabiltà. the first and second violins soar – but not for virtuosity. For delight in the loveliness of the melody. But it's not all about emotion: the accelerated passagework that bridged this and the fourth movement (especially by the first violin) is technically brilliant but at the same time light and unostentatious. We're getting an integrated and carefully conceived interpretation. Not a showpiece with colors and moods.
Another great strength of the Endellions' playing is its sense of vision and acute appreciation of where the current movement fits in the overall (3-period) development of Beethoven's work in the string quartet medium. Not that they overemphasize "early", "middle" and "late". But references across many years or decades cannot sensibly be ignored. They illuminate our appreciation of two or more works. An example is the gentle lyricism which they employ to suggest that the "Harp" (Opus 74) looks forward and is already breaking new ground. The soft, almost dreamlike, quality of the Adagio ma non troppo [CD.5 tr.6], for example, looks forward unsentimentally, yet with a certain comfort to the wistfulness of the very last movements Beethoven was to write for the medium. The thrust and purpose of the "Harp" is never obscured. Yet that it forms one in a sequence and shares musical language which Beethoven was later to push to is limits adds to the solidity and confidence of our reaction.
Equally revealing is the first movement in particular of Opus 130 [CD.7 tr.1]: instead of something cloudy, somber and almost threatening, the Endellions bring a – serenity and approachability without losing any of the gravity required to offset the later movements… particularly the third, which to these players is the dance of a child newly or just discovering that there is such an activity. This makes the speed with which they take the second movement [CD.7 tr.2] all the more striking.
In fact, it's the Endellions' superb use of varying – yet highly apt – tempi that makes such a huge and unforgettable impact as you work your way through the cycle. Each note matters, in its bar and in the movement, in its own right – yet never as a lecturer in botany would dissect a plant – as part of the quartet's whole. The pace at which the lento assai of Opus 135 [CD.9 tr.3] is taken (it lasts almost eight minutes) leaves you believing in it for its own sake, rather than in its importance to the loosening that comes next in the final fourth movement. Although, precisely because they take this movement correspondingly quickly (at barely nine minutes), you realize that there was more to the preceding movement than mere tension… somehow the same meticulous care (yet lightness of touch, alluding to rhetoric rather than indulging in it) with which the finale is approached suggests – once again – that Beethoven has just blotted the ink dry.
Close, warm, acoustics have been chosen for these performances… the concert hall at Wyastone, Monmouth (Wales); West Road concert hall in Cambridge (in the UK); and Potten Hall, Ipswich. That the quartets were recorded at nine different groups of sittings yet sound so consistently in keeping with the Endellions' intentions is further testament to the success of the project. The booklet that comes with the CDs has track details of course; and – given their stature – a perhaps somewhat perfunctory single essay by Misha Donat grouping them together. This is a small criticism. For technique, presentation, perception, profundity, beauty and insight, these accounts by the Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson & Ralph de Souza, violins; Garfield Jackson, viola; David Waterman, cello) are as good as those of any other cycle. The Busch, Quartetto Italiano, Lindsays all have strengths for the quartets of individual periods. But for a conception of Beethoven's achievement in the medium, this set can be safely regarded as the reference set. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.