BEETHOVEN: String Quintet. Piano Quartet. Grosse Fuge – Budapest String Quartet / Walter Trampler, viola/ Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano – Praga Digitals

BEETHOVEN: String Quintet, Op. 29. Piano Quartet Op. 16. Grosse Fuge Op. 133 (1965, 1962, 1961) – Budapest String Quartet  / Walter Trampler, viola / Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano – Praga Digitals PRD 250381, 74:17 (9/8/17) ***:

On a nostalgic disc devoted to important recordings by the fabled Budapest Quartet of tangentially curious, early and late chamber music by Beethoven, Praga Digitals continue their sprint through great classical music recordings of yesteryear. 

Spread across five years, all apparently recorded at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studios, the performances represent the Quartet’s last years of glory before they disbanded in 1967 after having been in business for 50 years. Everything that made them famous, the skills and concentration that enabled them to forge a relentless relationship with the music they played, informs every bar.

Anchored by the formidable playing of cellist Mischa Schneider and led by the charismatic first violinist Joseph Roisman, the Quartet’s commitment to speaking with one voice and to choosing honesty as the guiding principle in every substantial musical decision they had to make, came with a cost. As they finally neared the end, the increasing difficulty of their massive achievements become more apparent. Appropriately, the Grosse Fuge, recorded in 1961 as part of the Quartet’s last complete Beethoven cycle, represents a culmination of the profound understanding of the music that the Quartet had reached for in their edgier mono cycle from the 50s.

In that earlier cycle, recorded at the Library of Congress on Stradivari instruments, despite the scratchy sound and terrible surfaces of the vinyl of the day, combined with the inherently unforgiving nature of audiophile equipment at the time, the Quartet’s stunning virtuosity and ability to create structure and narrative created emotional content and consequences.

It was an impossible standard to set, and so in the 1961 Grosse Fugue, one of the last in the stereo cycle to be recorded, you can hear a new, Prospero-like readjustment at work, letting go of the virtuosic technical command to return to literal truths of first discoveries while studying the score, which are behind each great inspiration: the laying out of the four lines so that the listener hears each separately and still experiences a fabric of sound rather than just one line.

The Piano Quintet from 1962 is intrinsically less problematic, and less interesting, although it is beautifully played, appropriately relaxed and smiling, and the sound is also warmer and softer-edged. The String Quintet, however, one of Beethoven’s greatest unknown works (even the Takacs Quartet had not played it as of several years ago), is highly charged and eloquent but—recorded in 1965—it is right at the edge of the what the Quartet could do reasonably handle, especially in the fiendish last movement.

In fact, the String Quintet, which represents a compelling, emotionally healthier fork in the road the composer did not take, was in the repertoire of the Budapest Quartet (they had previously recorded it in 1945) and sounds as if they had a deep affection for it. They are still at the top of the their form in the lullaby lyricism of the first movement, the singing recitative of the second, and the innocent joy of the third, and they even take the measure of the stunning tour de force that is the finale.

Halfway through the whirlwind last movement, the Budapest is also taken momentarily aback, as audiences of the day and today alike still are, by the brief, disjointed interlude that interrupts the music’s progress as if Beethoven was wondering, with his music, “Why am I writing such profoundly beautiful music when I could be writing art?” The answer at the time was to fly deliriously into the death-defying ending.

The recordings, which capture the Quartet with remarkable, unflinching, and not always flattering honesty, can still sound hard on drastically high-end systems.

—Laurence Vittes

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