BEETHOVEN: The Late String Quartets – Cypress String Quartet – Cypress Performing Arts Association CSQBC012 (3 CDs) ***1/2:
Beethoven’s last five quartets are the touchstone for any string quartet; the ensemble has simply not “arrived” until it begins to tackle them, unless they are a specialist group of some sort like the Kronos. And the great five are exceedingly open to a huge variance in interpretation. More than any of the other Beethoven quartets, these last ones inhabit a universe of such supreme and wide ranging philosophical and musical concepts that it is possible to bend the material to such an extent that two opposing performances may almost sound like different pieces.
With these criteria in mind a devoted listener is easily justified in having multiple versions of this music in his or her collection, music that justifies “more than one” much more easily than other works. Beethoven’s extraordinary range of dynamics and emotion make it almost impossible for definitive readings to exist at all—any new or established reading of consequence adds to the bottomless pit of interpretative knowledge. Having said that, I do have a favorite one that has achieved a degree of critical consensus over the years: the Tokyo Quartet’s RCA set. This performance by the original quartet was given superbly smooth sound that garnered all of the pent up emotion present in these pieces, and gave the works a decidedly romantic flavor that I think is very apropos. After all, despite the multitudinous arguments so commonly found in conservatory classrooms about whether Beethoven was a classicist or romantic, these last quartets send us so far into the future that the answer would seem self-evident, and the Tokyo plays them for all they’re worth.
The Cypress Quartet is not quite on that level—few are. And I don’t get an intensely romantic feeling from these readings, though they are far from stoic or cold. In fact there is a lot of sinew on the bones of these performances, and the sound in general that the quartet relies on might best be described as “robust”—it has an overinflated feeling to it that highlights the middle section of the range and seems weakest on the top. Yet this type of tonal aggregation also lends itself to an orchestral style of playing that is by no means out of place in this music. Beethoven stretches the quartet to its limits, though even at the most dynamically vibrant moments you never feel the need to expand into the orchestra, which for me is one of the reasons why the orchestral-arrangements ultimately fail. Beethoven could have gone this route had he wished, and there are no reasons given anywhere that suggest he might have done this.
Technically the Cypress is on top of things, and I hear nothing in these performances that indicate the quartet should have avoided these works. In fact there are many good things, even intriguing things about these readings that I find quite attractive, especially the penchant for taking chances and not being afraid to let their enthusiasm show. There are no revelations here but none are needed—excellent performances speak for themselves, and the Cypress point of view is one that traverses the darkness and the light inherent in this music. Not a first choice—the Tokyo remains—but one that I feel certain I will return to often.
Romantic Piano Music from early 1900s…