Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Quatuor Mosaïques in Late Beethoven

My scepticism concerning “original instruments” and “period performances” is well documented in this blog. I can never really see the point, except it is currently fashionable. All those critics – most of them either pianists or choral scholars – who pretend they can discern immediately whether an instrument they are hearing has gut strings, metal strings, or plastic strings, can do nothing of the sort. I grew up with gut strings and they were a pain in the neck, always going out of tune, and snapping if you so much as looked at them. Instrument strings are one of the few things in the world that have become better over time (as well as computers, and cars). The strings I use in 2017 seem rarely to go out of tune, and very rarely break. And my playing does not sound any worse than it did when I had gut strings in my youth.

Well, all that as an introduction to the Quatuor Mosaïques playing the five late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven “on period instruments”. Of the sixteen strings used by the four instruments of the quartet, my sensitive ear can hear that three are non-gut. (Actually, it can't, but that just shows how silly the whole thing has become. I cannot even hear which of Heifetz's four violin strings was non-gut; he always used three gut strings, and one metal covered. I seem to remember it was the G that was metal covered). I bought the Mosaïques set because I have its Haydn quartet set, and like it very much indeed. Despite being “period”, the quartet has a warm, friendly sound, and does not scamper through the music at high speed like so many “period” performers. And unlike many period performers, the four players can actually play their respective instruments rather well; in this set, I would particularly pick out the cellist, the Frenchman Christophe Coin, who really makes the most of the cello part; it is as if Furtwängler were directing the ensemble, with emphasis on the bass part underpinning the music. More brownie points: for the B flat quartet opus 130, the Mosaïques go straight into the Grosse Fuge, after the Cavatina, a solution to Beethoven's controversial finales I much prefer, even though the Fuge does sound deranged in places, even to 21st century ears. To the ears of 1825, it must have sounded worse than the music of Luciano Berio.

No performances of the last five string quartets of Beethoven are going to be definitive. Listening to the Mosaïques, I still recall passages as played by the Busch Quartet – in the Cavatina of opus 130, for example. And the Busch players let the music breathe more than do their rivals. However, in these wonderful string quartets, I'll happily settle for the Busch, the Mosaïques and the Talich Quartet, in any old order. In the words of a Bach cantata: Ich habe genug.

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