BEETHOVEN: String Quartets (complete); String Quintets: in E-flat, op. 4; in C, op. 29; various quartet and quintet fragments – Endellion Quartet/ David Adams, viola – Warner Bros. 2564 69471-3 (10 CDs), 10+ hours ****:
This set won an “Editor’s Choice” from Gramophone Magazine, claiming the playing is of the highest order. Parts of it have been released before, but now the quartet has put together the complete series by Beethoven, plus the string quintets and a small series of fragments, including the Quartet in F, H34, which Beethoven arranged from the Piano Sonata, op. 14, No. 1. On the whole, this is not a bad deal for around $65. But there are a lot of sets of the complete quartets out there, some truly classic, so how does this one compare?
Pretty well, overall. But let’s be honest; the sound is good but somewhat close, the playing has spots of ragged ensemble and rough-edged tonal qualities, and the quartet seems unable to garner an outstanding and swelling forte in some of the passages that call for it. Balances seem to me to be a bit of a problem in instances where exposure is the order of the day. Often I felt as if this quartet is more a collection of maverick individuals than a truly united ensemble with common goals.
And yet—and yet these guys have an ability to project the inner essence of Beethoven in a very masculine, guy-like, bronco buck Wild West way. It is really quite thrilling in spots, and you can sense the enjoyment they are having no matter which part of the quartet series they happen to be waddling in. For a British quartet, these guys are definitely on the bad boy side, and the fact that they have been around for 30 years proves that longevity, in their instance, does not mean stagnation.
None of these works tops my absolute favorites – the recently-reviewed Fine Arts performances of Op. 18 among them. Nor can the Endellions capture the burnished blandishments that the Takacs Quartet lathers up the middle quartets with. And I cannot for a second claim that the glories of the late quartets are anywhere as well served here as they are by the classic readings of the Tokyo Quartet on RCA—they are not. But yet—but yet these readings have a sort of radical consistency about them in that the unexpected sense of unity resides in the fact that no particular quartet has the sort of unity you would normally expect. It’s nuts, I know, but that’s the way it is, and in a really weird way it works. These readings will communicate with you and not disappoint.
By the way, apparently Jonathan Del Mar is at it again, this time completely revising the quartets according to the latest restorations in rhythms, harmonies, slurrings, articulations, and other markings. Some you can hear, most you won’t notice, and the Endellions’ extraordinary way with this music probably masks a lot of these things anyway. For the adventurous, and those who like cold water thrown in their faces.
— Steven Ritter