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Beethoven from
The Nash Ensemble -
welcomed by

'... a class of its own.'

Beethoven - The Nash Ensemble. © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Since it was formed by Amelia Freedman (CBE, FRAM) forty-five years ago, The Nash Ensemble, in a variety of superbly adaptable incarnations, has been synonymous with consistent excellence in British chamber music making.

By the end of the 2007/8 season the group had performed over 255 new works, of which 138 were especially commissioned, providing a legacy for generations to come.

The Nash has received numerous accolades including The Edinburgh Festival Critics' Award 'for general artistic excellence' and two Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ('chamber music') for the breadth of its taste and its immaculate performance of wide ranging music.

Its world-wide reputation is second to none. For music critics at large, except the toxic ones who are only happy when they're sniping, reviewing TNE recordings is a pleasure.

So it is with Hyperion's latest all-Beethoven release featuring members of TNE in a string quintet and piano quartet with a seldom heard viola and cello duo as their intervening item.

The String Quintet Op 104 is an 1817 revision of the third of Beethoven's Piano Trios, Opus 1 (in C minor, 1792/94) dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky.

Initially Opus 104 was arranged by a minor composer identified as Herr Kaufmann in a letter from Beethoven to his publisher, Steiner, in August 1817. Thereupon Beethoven rewrote Kaufmann's attempt.

Look for Opus 1 with the Stuttgart Piano Trio (Naxos).

Otherwise it may be found alongside Trio, Opus 11 and Beethoven's 'Scottish Folk Songs' with the English Piano Trio and soprano Ann MacKay (Meridian Records).

String Quintet, Op 104, was scored as a 'viola quintet' in that it is configured for string quartet and an extra viola -- two violins, two violas and cello.

An LP version of Opus 104 with The Suk Quartet (Supraphon) reappeared on CD (SU34472111) while Koch International Classics (3-7401-2-H1) has an oddball arrangement with Eli Heifetz, clarinet, replacing the first violin.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegro con brio (String Quintet in C minor Op 104)
(track 1, 0:21-1:19) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

From its Allegro con brio opening movement the legacy of Haydn and Mozart is noticeably sidelined in a succession of lyrical and vehement episodes foreshadowing Beethoven's middle period drama and melancholy.

Though the intensity is lessened during the second movement variations, the latter two movements reveal more of a characteristic dichotomy -- with sensitivity and lyricism countered by agitated turbulence. In this early yet substantial work, the English ensemble gives the many moods their due with peerless, empathetic artistry.

Listen -- Beethoven: Menuetto: Quasi allegro (Op 104)
(track 3, 2:39-3:43) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Piano Quartet in E flat major Op 16 is an arrangement of the Quintet for piano and winds (also Op 16) scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

It was written in 1796-97; inspired by Mozart's Piano Quintet of 1784 -- K 452, in E flat (with the same scoring). To reinforce the point, Naxos has Mozart's work (23'27") and Beethoven's Piano Quintet in E flat Op 16 (25'12") together on a single disc (8.550511).

Their movements run in parallel -- Beethoven 1 (Grave -- allegro ma non troppo); Mozart 1 (Largo -- allegro moderato); Beethoven 2 (Andante cantabile); Mozart 2 (Larghetto); Beethoven 3 (Rondo -- allegro ma non troppo); Mozart 3 (Rondo -- allegro).

The debt to Mozart in general and his piano and wind quintet in particular should not be ignored. Nonetheless Beethoven's methodology has its own individualistic stamp. Mozart magically intertwines the piano and his wind voices. Though Beethoven's wind version has a greater breath of timbre and discourse, for all its merits it fails to match Mozart's matchless bounteous refinement or his predecessor's captivating, carefree rondo.

The quintet is that of which, on 10 April 1784, Mozart wrote to his father Leopold; 'For my own part, I think it's the best work I've ever composed'.

A further disc with both wind quintets features the Philadelphia Wind Ensemble -- John De Lancie (oboe); Anthony Gigliotti (clarinet); Sol Schoenbach (bassoon); Mason Jones (French horn) and pianist Rudolf Serkin on Sony SNYC 93909.

Fine though the Sony is, the Mozart Quintet K452 is heard as never before or since alongside his four horn concertos on a priceless 1955 Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble recording (EMI CDC 7243 5 56231 2 6).

Hyperion's central item is the Duo in E flat major for Viola and Cello, 'mit zwei obligaten Augengläsern' ('with two obbligato eyeglasses') WoO32 (1796-1797). Beethoven created this duet around 1796-7, though it was not published until 1912.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegro ('Eyeglass' Duo)
(track 3, 0:26-1:13) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

He wrote it with his friend, the amateur cello player Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz in mind. Beethoven himself played the viola so it's very likely that the severely short-sighted Hungarian and Beethoven (at that time he too was wearing spectacles and beginning to notice his hearing deteriorating), played the work together -- hence the title.

Zmeskall (1759-1833), a secretary in the Hungarian Chancellery, was among the first people Beethoven met when arriving in Vienna. Subsequently, in 1810, he became dedicatee of the String Quartet in F minor, Op 95, premièred by Schuppanzigh's (Rasumovsky) Quartet in 1814 and published in 1816.

He is believed to have provided Beethoven with quills for his work, a recipe for boot polish and advice on how to sack an unsatisfactory manservant. Through work connections he had ready access to wine and assisted the composer in finding accommodations, correcting the proofs of his editions etc.

The companions would occasionally drink away from their dwellings -- thus Beethoven once wrote -- 'Let us meet at six o'clock at the Schwann Inn and drink some of their dreadful red wine ...'

By the 1820s Zmeskall was confined to a wheelchair with severe gout, yet he managed -- to Beethoven's delight -- to be present at the first performance of the Ninth Symphony on 7th May 1824 at the Kärntnertor theatre.

Zmeskall remained Beethoven's friend till the composer's death.

Listen -- Beethoven: Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo (Piano Quartet Op 16)
(track 9, 4:29-5:31) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Astute programming, judiciously engineered sound, and Nash Ensemble's discerning, faultless performances catapult this welcome disc into a class of its own.

Copyright © 29 July 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand










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