BEETHOVEN: Six String Quartets, Op. 18 – Lener String Quartet – Pristine PACM 106 (2 CDs) TT: 2:18:28 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn turns his attention to the series of Beethoven quartets pioneered by the famed Hungarian ensemble, the Lener Quartet (estab. 1918), whose craft had been honed by composer Leo Weiner. These players had been members of both the Budapest Opera and the Philharmonic. Their American, Carnegie Hall performance review by Olin Downes on 13 November 1929 called the Lener Quartet – Jeno Lener, first violin; Joseph Smilovits, second violin; Sandor Roth, viola, and Irme Hartman, ‘cello – “a brilliantly successful American debut last night.” The Lener Quartet was the first to present the Beethoven cycle in London and the first to record the sequence for the electrical process. The Rockport label, Shinseido/EMI in Japan, Testament and EMI in Great Britain, and Opus Kura, respectively, had released Lener Quartet CDs, but none of these companies has survived; or if still active, has made their archives easily accessible, so we may assume that commentator Tully Potter’s insightful efforts will transfer to this ongoing Pristine incarnation.
Our immediate impression of the Beethoven Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 responds to Old-World performance practice, in terms of portamento (rec. 3 December 1928) and wide vibratos, a lush and yet chiseled sound, quite attuned to Beethoven’s Classical sense of architecture. Their homogeneous sense of style allows for a musical flow and dramatic flux that quite sets a high mark for future ensembles. Still, the Lener effect of the “affetuoso” designation in the expansive second movement might give us pause today. It might, however, be germane to recall that Beethoven reserved his piano sonatas as his preferred medium of experimentation; his string quartets tend to offer “solutions” to the issues of musical construction the sonatas explore. Here, the thirty-year-old Beethoven explores and simultaneously expands the expressive style created by Haydn and refined in Mozart. The Scherzo of the F Major must have come as a startling revelation to the audience of 1801, especially since the Lener infuse the music with a feisty energy and whimsical playfulness. The last movement, Allegro, exploits various combinations among the four instruments, and their combined vitality in counterpoint proves both lush and dramatically compelling.
There do appear moments when the ensemble’s leader, Jeno Lener, assumes a commanding, even virtuoso presence, as in the opening Allegro of the G Major, Op. 18, No. 2, but the concertante writing in Beethoven allows for the spotlight to fall upon him often, as in the most overtly sturm und drang of the set, the fleetly virtuosic Allegro ma non tanto of the C minor, Op. 18, No. 4. But no less revolutionary in content, the Scherzo of the B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6 (rec. 8 and 21 November 1926), whirls with displaced accents that test the coordination of the ensemble as well as the listener’s ability to identify where the beat falls. The end of the Trio section returns the da capo main idea in the minor mode, quite a turn for its time. The Lener plays the transition with a smooth elegance as if Beethoven’s defiance of convention were old news. The last movement Beethoven marks La malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi allegro. . ., almost a forecast of the kinds of internal crises and drama that haunt his late quartets. The deep tones from cello Imre Hartman make the opening pages of this last movement remarkable. The jarring metric units of the Prestissimo manage their moments of reflective song with the same, easy pulse and transition that marks the Op. 18 cycle as a whole.
If I have elided commentary on each and every movement of the remainder of the set, I concede that the individual riches challenge the task; but the facile gait of the Menuetto from Op. 18, No. 5 in A Major (rec. 9 and 13 July 1936) testifies to a charmed sense of the Vienna tradition. Most remarkable, the session of 2 December 1926 captures the Quartet No. 3 in D Major rather in one lucid gulp, as it were. The bouncy, suave energy of this – actually the first of the Op. 18 set composed – certify a breezy confidence and finesse in this composer of whom the world must take note. The shift of dramatic significance to the last movement, Presto, has the Lener fully aware of the dramatic import of their figures, the various points of entry marked by dynamic stresses and retreats, both lyrical and contrapuntal. True to form, the transfers from shellac 78s has been achieved with almost no sense of the near-century of the origin of these masterful strokes.