Thursday, 24 August 2017

Re-Listening to the Beethoven String Quartets

I have always had a fondness for the music of string quartets (I once, long ago, played the viola in an amateur string quartet). In some ways, the combination of two violins, a viola and a cello, is an ideal platform for music. Throughout my life I have had a great affection for the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert … and lately, Shostakovich. By chance, I have just discovered on my shelves that I have no less than four complete sets of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets; there used to be five, but I ditched the set by the Hungarian String Quartet some years ago.

The remaining maestri are the Léner Quartet (recorded circa 1928), the Vegh Quartet (circa 1952), the Talich Quartet (1980s) and the Juilliard Quartet (1964-70). I cannot now remember why I invested in the Talich or the Juilliard sets, but I bought the Léner set (from Japan) because I liked the olde worlde sound of the quartet, with its distinctive Hungarian style and large doses of portamenti. I bought the Vegh, since the Vegh recordings of opus 59 no.1 and opus 95 were the first Beethoven quartet recordings I acquired (on an old French LP, when I was around fifteen years old). I replaced the LP with the complete set by the Vegh, many years ago.

So I seized the Juilliard set off the shelves, and have embarked on a retrospect of all sixteen Beethoven string quartets. I know the late quartets extremely well, and the middle opus 59 quartets quite well. But it has been interesting and rewarding over the past few days becoming re-acquainted with the six opus 18 quartets, that I know less well. Interesting, enjoyable, and with a recorded sound and style of playing that I find greatly pleasing, even though there is evidence of a certain American brashness in some of the playing. I still greatly regret that the Busch Quartet never recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets; Adolf Busch, in particular, always brought a remarkable authority to the first violin part. Still, the Juilliard players are worthy stand-ins for the absent Buschs, and I am enjoying my listening marathon. One day, I'll have to get out the old set led by Jenö Léner, with his distinctive old world style and sound.

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