BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59: No. 2 in E Minor; No. 3 in C Major – Quartetto Italiano – PentaTone

by | Jul 9, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59: No. 2 in E Minor; No. 3 in C Major – Quartetto Italiano – PentaTone Multichannel  (4.0 RQR Series) CD PTC 5186 176, 70:27 [Distr. by Naxos] ****

From their famed cycle of Beethoven Quartets, these recorded quadraphonically in Switzerland, the December 1973 inscriptions of the latter two of Beethoven’s “Rasoumovsky” Quartets return to us in remastered form; and we can well appreciate the plastically razor-sharp integrity of violin Paolo Borciani and Franco Rossi’s expansive cello parts. The utterly symphonic nature of Beethoven’s chamber music writing basks in long, florid melodies, accompanied by shimmering, dramatic tensions in the second violin (Elisa Pegrefi) and viola (Piero Farulli, who remained with the ensemble 1947-1977).  At any point along the continuum of these two incisively-etched quartets, we can hear why Virgil Thomson called Quartetto Italiano “the finest string quartet that our century has known.”

If ever Beethoven’s interior world adumbrates that radical, subjective world of Bela Bartok, the Molto adagio of the E Minor Quartet points the way. In E Major, the music wends its patient hymnal course through a galaxy of modulations, as it seems Beethoven had been imagining the music of the spheres. Long chords interject themselves mid-way in the movement, answered by rocking figures that tautly float, detached in space.  In the SACD format, these inward musings of Beethoven gain a dimension of fixation that justifies Beethoven’s contemporaries’ fear and wonder at this music. The Scherzo in E Minor utilizes the Russian tune Count Rasoumovsky stipulated must appear in Op. 59, but the harmonic clashes of tonic-dominant that ensue seem to mock the commission.  Since the sonic world waxes symphonic, analogies to Mahler’s rhythmic disjunctions apply. Obviously, Moussorgsky well knew this movement. The cut-time Finale (Presto), a galloping, concertante festival for the first violin, moves like a hot knife through paraffin, splendidly brisk, a ballet for en point strings. By the coda’s end, the difference between intense sound and streaks of light has broken down completely.

The C Major Quartet, the briefest of the Rasoumovsky set–lacking any Russian theme–keeps its own counsel, particularly in the extraordinary A Minor Andante con moto second movement. Rossi’s degrees of color, played pizzicato, sell this album: music that verifies the throbbing Heart of the World. The degree of concentration already anticipates what Beethoven achieves in his Op. 95 F Minor Quartet and again in his Eighth Symphony. The Quartetto Italiano’s opening chord to the slow, first movement introduction ought to be played for every aspiring chamber music group, forever. The concertante writing allows both fleet bravura and arioso contributions from Borciani, often in dialogue with Pegrefi and Rossi. The C Major-A Minor knot, a deliberate confinement of harmonic space, literally disappears in the throes of Beethoven’s invention. The tiny germs of melody explode in every conceivable direction, including under a long trill.  When the strings play unisono, we rejoice they are not machine guns or buzz saws. The Grazioso movement allows us a profound simplicity, at least momentarily. The melodic texture spreads itself evenly throughout the four instruments, the more rhythmic counter-theme energetic, light, aerially active, flirting with a four-note Fate motif. The Allegro molto serves both as a perpetual mobile and vehicle for layered counterpoint, pedal effects and stretti in abundance. Farulli’s viola slices the air like razor wire, each new appearance of the Rondo theme gaining new energy, the cumulative effect best captured by Goethe: he exclaimed that, after hearing Beethoven’s music, he couldn’t place his hat on, having forgotten the location of his head.

—Gary Lemco

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