BEETHOVEN: The ‘Late’ String Quartets (Nos. 12 thru 16) – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia Mundi (3 discs)

by | Oct 29, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: The ‘Late’ String Quartets (Nos. 12 thru 16) – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD (3 discs) HMU 807481.83, About three hours *****:

You can’t go wrong with this set. The ‘Late’ String Quartets is a superbly engineered recording of the greatest string quartets ever written, played by one of the world’s finest ensembles. And it’s a multichannel hybrid SACD. This should be the end of the review, but let me go on. First, the sound itself. It is magnificent, vast yet intimate, missing any extraneous noise, with nary a grunt or even a breath from the musicians. What about the playing? There’s never a hint of a strained or wrong note throughout. It’s all exquisite interpretation, the likes of which I haven’t heard since the recordings of the Emerson String Quartet (1998), the live recordings of the Alban Berg Quartet studio (1987) and live (1993), or even the Julliard String Quartet in their Grammy-winning set (1985).

The serene Adagios of the Opus 127 and 131 are played with such subtle shadings of color and tempo, you may be tempted to compare them to these other recordings, just to make sure what they did was “correct.” Don’t bother. Sit back in your recliner or lie on your back on your living room floor at 3 AM, and just let this amazing music flow over you. They even manage to make the difficult and cranky Grosse Fuge an interesting (rather than a challenging) experience. There’s a sense of restraint within that I find refreshing. Listen to them play the startling opening Allegro of the Opus 132, which abounds in stunning invention in just the first five bars. You can’t stop listening to it, even though you may know this music intimately. “So how are they going to do this next part?” you find yourself asking, movement after movement. About the only reason not to get it is to wait a year for the inevitable boxed set of all the quartets. This music won’t let you down. Take it with you into the scary corridors of old age, for as Beethoven said, “He who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world.”

Must it be? It must be.

— Peter Bates

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