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BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi (8 SACDs)

BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807641.48, About eight hours (8 SACDs) [9/9/14 ] *****:

They are all excellent. The idea that Beethoven’s earliest Opus 18 quartets are not as developed or intricate as the late quartets, or that the four “Middle Quartets” (Nos. 7 thru 10) don’t express the full range of his genius dies hard among academics. Let them sit and listen to Opus 59, No. 3, IV with its surging waves of sound in (both single and double) fugues, and you’re hard pressed to find anywhere in Beethoven where he rides the surge of invention better. (He even sticks in an impish false ending!) He may be more profound elsewhere, but certainly not more triumphant. Not for nothing does it bear the moniker “Hero.”

Right from the beginning, Beethoven knew these works were great. It appears he even knew about the particular powers of each. In Opus 18, he chose the F major quartet as the “first” quartet, even though he composed it second. He did this probably because it is the most impressive of the six, with brilliant opening and closing movements and stunning dramatic sweep. The B Flat Major (No. 6) is subtitled “Malinconia” (Melancholy) and it rivals the late quartets in its evocation of grief and despair. Even in the gay German dance section of the final movement, Beethoven can’t resist sneaking in dour reminders of previous somber movements.

You can’t go wrong with anything in this entire set. The Complete String Quartets is a superbly engineered recording of the greatest string quartets ever written, played by one of the world’s finest ensembles. And it’s on SACDs. This should be the end of the review, but let me go on. First, the sound itself. It is magnificent, vast yet intimate, missing any extraneous noise, with nary a grunt or even a breath from the musicians. How does the Tokyo String Quartet handle these works? With utmost aplomb, guided by an uncanny degree of inspirational talent. There’s never a hint of a strained or wrong note throughout. It’s all exquisite interpretation, the likes of which I haven’t heard since the recordings of the Emerson String Quartet (1998), the Alban Berg Quartet [studio (1987) and live (1993)], or even the Julliard String Quartet in their Grammy-winning set of 1985.

The serene Adagios of the Opus 127 and 131 are played with such subtle shadings of color and tempo, you may be tempted to compare them to these other recordings, just to make sure what they did was “correct.” Don’t bother. Sit back in your recliner or lie on your back on your living room floor at 3 AM, and just let this amazing music flow over you. They even manage to make the difficult and cranky Grosse Fuge an interesting (rather than just a challenging) experience. There’s a sense of restraint within that I find refreshing, contrasted with other players like the Alban Bergs, who emphasize the raucous. Listen to the Tokyos play the startling opening Allegro of the Opus 132, which abounds in stunning invention in just the first five bars. You can’t stop listening to it, even though you may know this music intimately. “So how are they going to do the next part?” you find yourself asking, movement after movement. This music won’t let you down. Take it with you into the scary corridors of old age, for as Beethoven said, “He who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world.”

Must it be? It must be.

—Peter Bates

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