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Impeccable Technique

Beethoven's middle
string quartets -
heard by

'The outer movements induce some grinding of teeth.'

Beethoven Middle String Quartets. The Wihan Quartet. © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

The Count Rasumovsky of Beethoven's Op 59, Russian ambassador to Vienna, was descended from a Ukrainian member of the imperial chapel choir who caught the eye of the Empress Elizabeth. A good musician himself, he has deserved well of posterity for his steady financial support of the great composer. The Wihan Quartet is equally steadfast in its qualities and defects. In other words, impeccable technique is marred by a lack of judgment that makes of the manic fugal finale to Op 59 No 3 a 'Musical Joke' as unfunny as Mozart's notorious example.

For good value the team has included Beethoven's own arrangement in F of his piano sonata Op 14 No 1. Here the main interest is the considerable adjustments Beethoven made in the original figuration when transferring the music to the new medium. Tremolos replace arpeggios, and inner parts are subtly modified. But it so happens that the Wihans are at their best in the central Allegro, which Beethoven altered least.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegro (Op 14 No 1)
(CD1 track 6, 0:59-1:51) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

The outer movements induce some grinding of teeth.

With the start of Op 59 No 1 I had hopes that the players would regard these middle quartets as prelude to the last mighty five rather than an advanced continuation to Op 18. Indeed the comparatively spacious tempo adopted at the outset augurs well.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegro (Op 59 No 1)
(CD1 track 1, 0:01-1:50) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

But even here there is a sense that the next phrase must be tackled before the last has been allowed its proper impact. The succeeding Allegretto vivace is more often rough than 'scherzando', and can only be regarded as a failure.

In the first two of the Op 59 quartets Beethoven played about with a specifically Russian tune in honour of the Count. But since they occur in the unsatisfactory faster movements, I shall pass them by. Yet it is good to hear that these young players have been brought up short by the wondrous Molto adagio in the E minor quartet.

Listen -- Beethoven: Molto adagio (Op 59 No 2)
(CD2 track 2, 0:00-2:00) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

Equally acceptable is the Andante con moto of the C major quartet, where Beethoven's invention draws playful entertainment from subtle dovetailing of the parts.

Listen -- Beethoven: Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (Op 59 No 3)
(CD2 track 6, 0:00-1:45) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

The 'Harp' quartet, so called from the profusion of pizzicato that distinguishes the Allegro of the first movement, ends with the only set of variations in these six works, clear signpost to the future. The tune itself is a lovely creation.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegretto con variazioni (Op 74)
(CD3 track 4, 0:00-1:30) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

At the start of the succeeding 'Serioso' quartet, the Wihan team is at its worst, ruthless and offhand. It is tempting to concentrate on the Larghetto start to the finale, where Beethoven aspires towards Tristan und Isolde. But more characteristic is the mysterious core to the second movement.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegretto ma non troppo (Op 95)
(CD3 track 6, 1:11-2:16) © 2009 Wyastone Estate Ltd

Saint Agnes of Bohemia, in whose convent these works were recorded live, had to wait seven hundred and seven years between her death and eventual canonisation by John Paul II. It would be sad indeed if the world was deprived of idiomatic playing in Beethoven's quartets for an equivalent length of time. Globalisation, alas, has little concern with the finer points of chamber music, and it may be that, as so often in the past, Beethoven will have to rely more and more on the devoted care of the gifted amateur.

Copyright © 27 September 2009 Robert Anderson,
Cairo, Egypt









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