Friday, 1 September 2017

The Beethoven String Quartets with the Talich Quartet

If my personal musical Pantheon were arbitrarily limited to six musical works, it would contain the Mass in B minor, and St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. I came to the last Beethoven quartets somewhat late, after acquiring around 1979 an LP of the 14th quartet played by the Busch Quartet. For the past 35 years or so, I have found these quartets to be infinitely satisfying and somewhat intriguing, as Beethoven abandons thoughts of sponsors, publishers, audiences and players in pursuit of the celestial music that was whirring around inside his head. “What do I care for your wretched fiddles when the Spirit comes over me?” he is said to have remarked to the unfortunate Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Having somewhat over-praised the recordings by the Juilliard Quartet very recently, I embarked on a comparative listening of the sixteen with the Talich Quartet. A big contrast; where the Juilliard projected a dynamic and boisterous Beethoven, the Talich favours more meditation and less extreme tempi. In retrospect, the Juilliard projects a Beethoven from New York in the 1960s; the Talich brings Beethoven back to Central Europe.

For the thirteenth quartet, opus 130, I patched the CD so that the quartet ended with the Große Fuge as Beethoven originally intended, and as I much prefer. As is well known, a combination of the distraught Schuppanzigh Quartet (“we cannot play it”) and Beethoven's publisher (“I cannot sell it with that ending”) persuaded Beethoven to agree to having the Fuge published separately, and he wrote an amiable “get you home safe” finale in its place. Preceding the Große Fuge is the sublime Cavatina that, Beethoven claimed, caused him to shed tears while composing it. The whole performance of opus 130 – including the Fuge – by the Talich Quartet is of the very highest class of Beethoven quartet playing, as is the playing in my favourite 14th quartet. It is a relaxed style of playing, in the era before the pseudo- "authentic" evangelists began to preach dry sound and swift tempi. Deo gratias.

The Talich quartets were recorded at the very end of the 1970s and the very beginning of the 1980s and had the advantage of late analogue sound before the advent of early digital sound. The set originally appeared on LPs (I had two of them) and the recordings were later transferred (very well) to CD by Calliope. The sound throughout the set is warm, with a moderate distance between the listener and the players, and this makes a welcome change from the in-your-face balance of many string quartet recordings. I have to admit, however, that the recorded sound comes over as different, depending on whether I listen via my speakers or my wireless headphones. Here, I much prefer the headphones since, as usual, the speakers over-emphasise the cello and viola at the expense of the violins. The Talich was never a big-name quartet, and Calliope was never a major label, so the Beethoven set never really achieved the critical acclaim it so richly deserves. I am extremely happy at having re-discovered it on my shelves and, along with the Busch Quartet recordings from the 1930s, it has become my benchmark for these sixteen string quartets. The Juilliard box has gone into my discarded bin and will end up in some charity shop.

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