The miracles continue.
BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 2 (The Middle Quartets Opuses 59, 74, 95) – Dover Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 206 (3 CDs), 154:35 *****:
The so-called “middle” quartets of Beethoven did not make their appearance until about six years after the opus 18 quartets. Much had happened in that time—certainly the fourth piano concerto and fourth symphony allowed the composer new explorations in terms of jettisoning the Haydnesque activities of the earlier works and beginning to at least hint at the major harmonic and melodic advances to come. Even though we find foreshadowing of the middle quartets in specific passages from the early works (as we find the same in the middle works that point to the new language found in the final quartets), these intervening years show a remarkable progress of a man whose musical development was rapid and profound, perhaps more so than any composer who has ever lived.
The opus 59 quartets, named “Russian” or “Razumovsky” after the Russian Count who commissioned them, are neatly integrated and far more unified in concept than the classical opus 18. Beethoven seems to be searching for a more expansive and less formal manner of expression. The use of “folk” tunes that provide some sense of unification across these works is only a superficial methodology; the composer could have used any sort of melodies that provided pregnant, abundant thematic material that results in an almost obsessive need for continuous expansion of his ideas. He is stretching—you can feel it in the opening bars of opus 59:1. Perhaps because these three pieces were composed as a “set” for public performance, indicated in his own mind the need for some serious statement-making.
The early sketches for the “Harp” quartet show nothing of the final product. Also assumed for public outing, this quartet was well-received, the tenth composition now eight years since the first six works. To me, this is Beethoven’s most “impressionistic” quartet; I always think of the Ravel when I hear it. Perhaps the elegance of the plucked strings in the first movement are too much a reminder of the Frenchman’s piece. And even though the superb variations that complete the work bring us solidly back to German soil, the whole has an air of lilt and ethereal grace that mark it as one of the favorites.
The opus 95 “serioso” quartet was never intended for performance—Beethoven specifically indicates this several times. This work is not restful; only the second movement provides a bit of repose. And more than any other quartet to this point, it sets it sights to the profundities of the late quartets. Tightly wound and intense, the piece breathes the air of a time to come rather than the time at hand. Even the joyous romp to the end in the last movement only barely assuages the stern nature of this work.
Throughout, the Dover plays with incredible beauty. As in the first release in this series, the overall concept is expansive, vibrant, and superbly characterful—every member of this quartet has a bold personality that you can feel in the performances. There are many, many great readings of these quartets, and like the last set I cannot proclaim these folks the greatest. Yet, they are allowed in that ranking. One of the great advantages to this set is the amazingly robust and gorgeously cushioned sound. It has an almost three-dimensionality, so perfect is the presence and balance of the instruments. Likely this is because of the engineering skills of Bruce Egre, who despite his battle with cancer (which he lost, and whom the quartet honors in this release) was able to guide his artists through the difficulties of recording these challenging pieces. His wonderful accomplishment lives on.
For more information visit the Cedille website: