BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3 (The Late Quartets Opuses 127, 130,131,132, 135, Grosse Fuge, op. 133) – Dover Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 215 (3 CDs), 3:13:20 *****:
Yet another remarkable set from the Dover to conclude their Beethoven effort. And honestly, it was not at all what I was expecting! That’s not a bad thing, even though, based on their two previous sets, I was anticipating something extraordinary. This also supports that appellation, but in an entirely unexpected way. Let me explain.
For most quartets tackling these fiendish opuses, which is to say, most quartets period, the classical elegance (or supposed elegance) found in the early opus 18 works slowly metamorphoses into the fiercely independent, radical, and oh-so-serious take on the late ones. After all, they were indeed all of these things when they first appeared, but because of their difficulties and nuances, most string ensembles believe they must approach these works with their adult pants on, gearing up for unimagined profundity from the first notes of opus 127. A good example of this—and maybe the best—is the Decca recording by the Takacs Quartet. That highly-regarded set—with good reason—brings all the burnished passion and fervor one could ask for, amazing depth and technical fluency that dazzles from first to last.
But is that all these quartets are? Or are they something entirely different? Regarding the last, no, they are not entirely different than what is usually presented to us. But they are more than what we normally hear. In fact, good argumentation can be made for the idea that what is present in opus 18 is still present in many ways in the favorite five of the last years. Beethoven was setting the stage in the early quartets for what was to come in the later ones, and to neglect this important point is to miss many of the felicities and cleverness of the last works. The Dover seems to understand this—not that I have spoken to them, so I can’t confirm it—but their take on these pieces is anything but the “grand idea”, or the “summation” of Beethoven’s entire life. There is no fierceness or striving for ultimate profundity in these readings. But there is a lot of sweeping lyrical propensity, bold harmonic and dynamic contrasts, and a certain suavity that approaches the Telarc Cleveland Quartet readings while maintaining a subtle “classical” sensibility. In other words, they see these pieces as a culmination and fulfillment of Beethoven’s lifelong developmental processes, and not a simple thrust into the music of the future sans connection to the past.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the opus 131 C-minor, that wildly juxtaposed set of interlocked yet emotionally disparate sequences of what feels like completely independent episodes. The Dover does not imbue each of these with a radically different emotive context; in fact, they—to use a horribly overwrought and overused phrase—let Beethoven’s music “speak for itself” (if such a thing is possible) without providing any additional gravitas. The result is, maybe for the first time in my hearing, an ability to get through the entire piece without breaking into a sweat. It’s elegant lines and beautifully contoured phrases evolve and manifest themselves in a manner that bespeaks a congruency of musical thought that is often missing in more emphatic renderings of this work. The same applies to the other four quartets in the set.
A word about the Grosse Fuge. There is no question that Beethoven’s original conception is to end the opus 130 with this superb and completely unanticipated finale. In fact, it contains snippets of varying types (especially harmonic) from the other five movements but is nearly as long as all of them put together. Because of the enormous difficulties of the work, the publisher begged Beethoven to publish it separately and add another movement to serve as the finale. Most recordings as of late—meaning the last 30 years or so—use the Grosse Fuge as the ending of no. 13, in keeping with the composer’s original conception. The Dover does not, and I think it a good idea, though admittedly I have waffled with the idea over the years. The reasons are simple: the Grosse Fuge is such a fearsome and wildly different piece, so dominating and exhausting in many ways, that it makes one forget what came before, and there are many wonderful things in the op. 130; and Beethoven’s redone ending sounds ridiculous when played as a stand alone (even following the Grosse Fuge in some performances, which is ludicrous) and deserves to be heard and not relegated as an appendix, as it is on many recordings.
This is a most desirable release, recorded in great sound, and a fitting end to a formidable cycle.