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Towering Achievement

Beethoven's late
string quartets -

'... full marks to these players ...'

Wihan Quartet. Beethoven Late String Quartets. © 2009 Wyastone Estate Limited

The Wihan Quartet deserves well of its native Czech Republic, if only because it appears to have been the first such team to give a complete Beethoven quartet cycle in Prague. It is all but incredible that one of the most musical cities in Europe should have waited till 2007-8 for such an event. The effect on the audience at the live performances during five winter months has been admirable. Applause is rightly generous and coughs have been almost totally suppressed. I do not know the Convent of St Agnes, site of the recording, but my experience of such places suggests temperatures on the dismal side.

Having played and lived with these quartets for more years than I care to remember, I tend now to be selective in my enjoyment. The lyrical intertwinings in the first movement of Op 127, for instance, seem more wonderful than ever, though I can shed fewer tears than before over the Op 130 Cavatina or the 'Heiliger Dankgesang'. Scherzos may interest me less, but nothing can dim my awe and excitement at the staggering phenomenon of the 'Grosse Fuge'. So full marks to these players for ending the B flat Quartet in full fugal combat rather than opting for Beethoven's kittenish substitute.

I trust that the Almighty and Allah (if they have bothered to preserve any separate identity) will have instructed a group of angels to abandon the harp for the violin family and suggested that four houris should form a quartet so that the mighty Beethoven, restored to full hearing and preferably kept well away from nephew Karl and a metronome, might inform them of the ideal tempo for each movement, not just in context of the twenty-first century but sub specie aeternitatis. All I can say meanwhile is that I found none of the tempos on these discs too slow.

Team and composer are at their finest from the outset, as witness the start of the E flat quartet.

Listen -- Beethoven: Maestoso. Allegro (Op 127)
(CD 1 track 1, 0:01-1:54) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

The same applies to the opening fugue of Op 131, and the wondrous theme of the central variations.

Listen -- Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile (Op 131)
(CD 1 track 8, 0:00-1:01) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

If I imagine certain movements otherwise than as presented by the Wihan Quartet, and would prefer the Andante con moto of the B flat a notch slower, I can only admire the skill with which the team has here woven the threads of Beethoven's subtlest counterpoint.

Listen -- Andante con moto, ma non troppo (Op 130)
(CD 2 track 3, 0:00-1:28) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

The towering achievement is of course the Grosse Fuge, which sounds no less manic even on a full string orchestra. But the essential challenge is for four puny players to somehow shake the pillars of the universe, threatening chaos at the same time as warding it off. Performance is a superhuman endurance test, and to reach the end with all strings intact is itself achievement enough.

Listen -- Beethoven: Grosse Fuge (Op 133)
(CD 2 track 6, 0:00-1:39) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

By contrast the A minor's Allegretto is balm indeed, a gentle interplay of civilised talk among colleagues of highest culture.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegretto ma non tanto (Op 132)
(CD 3 track 2, 0:00-1:38) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

In his final completed work for the medium Beethoven demonstrates that amid the extraordinary originality of the four previous works, he yet preserved an almost Haydnesque feeling for the ideal layout of a quartet.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegretto (Op 135)
(CD 3 track 6, 0:00-1:55) © 2009 Nimbus Alliance

Copyright © 9 August 2009 Robert Anderson,
Cairo, Egypt









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