BEETHOVEN: The Early Quartets, Op. 18 – The Budapest String Quartet – Bridge

by | Nov 19, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: The Early Quartets, Op. 18 – The Budapest String Quartet in Concert at the Library of Congress, 1943-1962 – Bridge 9342A/B  (2 CDs) 67:41; 77:27 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The Bridge label completes its cycle of the complete Beethoven String Quartets with this survey of the Op. 18, inscribed over a 22-year period at the Library of Congress. During that period, which took in over 100 surviving recordings of the Beethoven quartets in concert performances, the personnel of the second violin part alternated from Edgar Ortenberg to Alexander “Sasha” Schneider. From 1940 until 1962 the Budapest String Quartet served as resident quartet at the Library of Congress.
The 23 March 1944 F Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1 bears all the hallmarks of the Budapest style: incisive attacks, resonant ensemble, a glowing fire of enthusiasm, and seamless rhythmic transitions in disparate tempos. Beethoven’s fugal writing and layered stretti pulsate and sing with edgy fury. Ortenberg’s interior lines display vivid articulation even in wickedly fast passages, and Mischa Schneider’s cello provides a bass foundation that could replace an opera chorus. Long, taut lines define the expansive Adagio movement, the collective vibrato effectively applied. A whiplash Scherzo leads to a hearty rendition of the final Allegro, in which Roisman’s singing tone comes to the fore.
The 13 April 1944 G Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 2 extends the finely honed blending of exact intonation with stylistic acumen. The various passing bravura passages in the violin part flow effortlessly, with wonderfully resonant response in Kroyt’s viola and  Schneider’s throaty cello. Some signs of shellacs’ age infiltrate the opening of the Adagio cantabile, but the piercing singing line emerges unscathed, and the generally “symphonic“ sound singularly impresses us. The sudden transition to a thrilling Allegro achieves a minor whirlwind then subsides for the Adagio to resume. The playful Scherzo: Allegro takes Haydn’s rusticity one better.  Happy economy of means marks the last movement Allegro molto, quasi presto with its many bravura concertante moments for each of the instruments. The relentless pulse of the reading remains at fever pitch, pointed and piquant at once.
The D Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 3 of 9 March 1944 marked Edgar Ortenberg’s first official concert with the Budapest String Quartet. Originally the first of the Op. 18 set, the music remains optimistic and lyrical for its first three movements, only assuming a heavier cast in the powerful Presto finale, a 6/8 movement rife with polyphony. Ortenberg opens the 12-bar theme of the Andante con moto, the melody taken up by Roisman. The rondo form seems hidden by Beethoven’s application of various string colors. The Allegro (Scherzo) becomes noteworthy for its D Minor trio section, in which a four-note descending bass pattern dominates. The dervish last movement has us in the palm of its hand, the audience response having been excised.
The concert of 30 March 1962 concluded the Budapest tenure at the Library of Congress, and the C Minor Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4 serves as a swansong. Beethoven experimented with alternating the roles of slow and fast movements in this potent work, one his many C Minor “fateful” utterances. Roisman had broken his left wrist and suffered a heart attack (in 1960) prior to this performance, but his tentative approach to existence does not betray the driving spirit of this vigorous and thoughtful reading. The symphonic chords in the first movement loom powerfully, answered by lyrical outbursts of a type Brahms would imitate. Sustained staccato articulation of the highest order, in splendid sound, moves the Andante so that it assumes the character of a scherzo. Enlarge the ensemble, intensify the syncopes, and it becomes Mahler. The last movement Allegro whirls in the manner of a stylish gypsy rondo, alternately luxuriant and festive.
Sacha Schneider had returned to the Budapest for the 1 November 1943 A Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 5. Vivacity and elegance mark the entire conception, the entire in the first movement virtually shrieking with instrumental largesse. The Menuetto conveys a Viennese lilt tinted with something of Hungary, especially in the drones of the trio. Some sonic deterioration plagues the opening of the Andante cantabile, but the plastic series of variants soon recovers its luster and immediacy of effect. The sonic balance of the last movement remains a minor miracle of ensemble, with the viola and cello’s providing a particularly hefty foundation for the spirited filigree above.
Finally, the B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6 “La Malinconia” Quartet (11 November 1960), the culmination of the set. The opening movement luxuriates in a conversation between Roisman and Mischa Schneider, the staccatos jumping in fine fettle. The homogeneity of sound produces something like a concerted symphony for quartet, the bow strokes themselves the very stuff of balanced precision. The ornate Adagio ma non troppo moves rather briskly but retains its harmonic mystery and melodic tenderness. The Scherzo plummets through its syncopations and eccentric metrics with enough verve to warrant its being called “jazzy.” The striking last movement, the eponymous “La Malinconia,” has the players opening “with the greatest delicacy.” The lively dance suffers two interruptions by the “melancholy” progression, perhaps an allusion to Beethoven’s onslaught of deafness. The breathed phrasing from the Budapest guarantees a series of rewarding revisits to this marvelous performance.
—Gary Lemco

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