Beethoven's Quartets as You've Never Heard Them Before--FIRS
Dace Gisclard | Houston, TX | 03/01/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Sets of the Beethoven Quartets are now available to satisfy every palate--from elder statesmen serving up old-fashioned boiled Beethoven with knockwurst and sauerkraut, heavy on the "sour"--to jet-setting virtuosi gleefully seizing upon the accounts of Beethoven's personal crudeness, using them as an excuse to exaggerate this trait to the point of parody--like Bartok with too much of the WRONG kind of paprika--and everything in between.
Among these extremes, the Endellion Quartet steers a course of sane and human musicality. (They are the resident quartet of Cambridge University, and have played many complete Beethoven cycles.) This is NOT to say that the Endellions are precious, bland or understated--far from it. Not only do they give Beethoven's strength, aggression and wildness full rein, but also his delicacy and humor. They eschew interpretive extremes, avoiding manic caricatures of "Beethoven, the rabid rock star," such as are currently fashionable in some quarters. They understand that although Beethoven was a revolutionary, he accomplished his changes by gradually making them WITHIN the classical style--NOT by immediately and totally rejecting it. Throughout, one feels the Endellions altering their performing style to reflect the evolution of Beethoven's idiom--this is as it should be. This set deserves a place among the best available. It will certainly take its place beside my favorite sets: Cleveland I and Tokyo I.
So much recommends this new set, one hardly knows where to begin. Of course, there is the intensely expressive and technically accomplished playing of the Endellions themselves. Their instruments blend into an ensemble sound, yet each is clearly differentiated. Even the viola and cello have presence and definition. Each player knows how every one of his phrases fits into the larger picture--either foreground, accompaniment, sideline comment, etc.--attentive listeners will not miss hearing a single note. Tempi throughout seem absolutely right. Ensemble is always unanimous and immaculate. Tricky changes of pace are deftly managed with hair-trigger responses, yet they also know when and how to relax the tension. In effect, the Endellions have merged into a single sharply-honed instrument.
The recorded sound lets the performances speak for themselves. Despite being divided among several engineers and venues, the sound is remarkably consistent from quartet to quartet. Textures are transparent, yet the group is not too closely miked. There is always a pleasant feeling of air surrounding the performers, but the ambiance is not over-reverberant.
If I have any complaint--and I admit this is subjective--it is that the group sometimes makes the conscious choice to play with minimal (and sometimes NO) vibrato. This is effective in places like the opening of No.14 or the introduction to the finale of No.6, where it clarifies bizarre harmonies and creates an appropriate feeling of disorientation. It's very brave, but sometimes the first violin is, in such instances, a bit over-bright. Of course, the tone controls can mitigate this, and my ears quickly adjusted to their leaner sound. Others will disagree, of course, and this should not keep anyone from purchasing and enjoying this excellent set.
In the space of a review one can discuss in only the most general terms the many felicities of these performances: the combined elegance and effrontery of Op.18; the passion of the Razumovskys (their swiftness and "every-note-in-place" virtuosity in the bustling finale of No.9 yields to no one); the rapt inwardness of the late slow movements; the "who, me?" mock innocence of No.16; balanced voicing pointing the way through the thickets of the Grosse Fuge--everything is fully and clearly projected. Many quartets hurtle through the scherzo of No.6 without clarifying the alternations between three groups of two and two groups of three in a bar, being content to leave the listener mystified as to what the pulse actually is. The Endellions let us in on the rhythmic jokes with subtly changing accentuations, and yet are still fleet of foot. Until now, I've never heard the hemiolas of this movement made so clear. The same goes for the breathless off-beat panting in the scherzo of No.16, here clearly placed on the second beats--but then, this is typical of the entire set. We are included in the adventure--we are never "on the outside looking in."
Another plus is that the Endellion plays from the meticulously prepared new edition by Beethoven scholar Jonathan Del Mar. (His versions of the symphonies have already been recorded by several conductors. Hopefully, other quartets will take up Del Mar's gauntlet soon.) Barenreiter is gradually publishing his scores, but as of this date I think only Op.18 has made it into print. I have followed the quartets, at least, with the old Breitkopf score and detected no changes (glaring or otherwise) in bar-to-bar structure. However, throughout there are changed dynamics, phrasings and articulations, deriving from Del Mar's researches into Beethoven's manuscripts. There are probably subtle changes in the notes, too, but it's difficult to detect this sort of thing "on the fly." Particularly valuable is THE FIRST RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF NO.1, which although recognizably based on the same material, is VERY different from the version we have come to know. The Endellion plays both, affording a fascinating glimpse into Beethoven's creative processes. Misha Donat's pithy notes briefly outline the main points of divergence between the two versions.
Besides the canonical 16 quartets, the set includes the composer's quartet transcription of his Piano Sonata No.9, and BOTH of the quintets. (The Quintet Op.4 is a complete rewrite of a quintet for winds with an entirely new second trio in the minuet.) Also included are all of the short works and fragments for quartet and quintet, played as Beethoven left them, with no attempts at "completion." No undiscovered masterpieces here, but they're all worth hearing.
The Endellion plays ALL the repeats, so not a scrap is missing--not even the repeats of the second parts of the first movements of Nos. 5, 6 and 8, which are usually not observed. This is especially important in the case of No.8, where the first and second endings are quite different.
RE REPEATS IN THE BEETHOVEN QUARTETS: ordinarily I regard comparing timings as an unreliable way to judge completeness of performances. However, since we are dealing here with such large structural divisions, I will cautiously state the following: if the first movements of Nos.5, 6 and 8 run about 9:00, 9:00 and 13:00 respectively, then one can pretty safely assume that the second half repeats are taken. This can give one at least some idea about the attitude of a quartet toward repeats, although of course, it doesn't ensure that ALL repeats are observed.
Not the least attraction of the Endellion set is Warner Classics' extraordinarily low price. But even without that inducement, this outrageously attractive box deserves one's serious consideration--highly and warmly recommended."
A unique sound
Scaffa | Sweden | 04/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I bought this box after having read the thorough review above, by Mr Gisclard, whose assessment I share.
There is much to commend this 10-CD set and not much I can add to the description of my learned colleague. Perhaps one thing.
The Endellion String Quartet has a distinctive sound, muscular, powerful and not over-polished, which may be explained by the fact that the members use a variety of different strings on their instruments - some use steel strings, others gut strings or covered gut strings. So, it's not a straightforward period approach, neither is it a straightforward modern approach. Rather, it is something very unique, something that demands to be heard. Full marks.