'A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox.' -- W. S. Gilbert, 'Pirates of Penzance'
I don't quite understand how this happens, but these performances of two of Beethoven's early quartets done by Quatuor Mosaïques on gut-strung instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries somehow sound more modern, more advanced than when played on modern instruments. One is used to hearing them played by modern-instrument quartets like the Emerson or the Takács Quartets and they sound quaint, Haydnesque, classical. In the present performances they sound dramatic, forward-looking and proto-Romantic. And, might I add, much more interesting. Obviously that is partly because Quatuor Mosaïques is a superb ensemble, but then so are the Emerson and the Takács. So, how to explain it? I think it has something to do with the SOUND of the instruments, softer, more rounded, more subtle, that is inherently more romantic in timbre than the clear-as-a-bell and almost clinical sound of 'modern' instruments. Whatever the explanation, these performances are, for me, revelatory.
Added to that is the discovery that pairing Op. 18, No. 1 with Op. 18, No. 4 points out their contrasts neatly. No. 1 is nominally in a major key (F major), No. 4 in minor (C minor). But No. 1 has a minor key movement (the Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato), No. 4 has one in the major (the Andante scherzoso). Beethoven's sketchbooks reveal that he labored long and hard on the No. 1 -- there are a total of fifteen pages devoted to polishing the little one-measure theme of Mvt. I and its working out. But there are no sketches at all for No. 4; it's as if Beethoven had written it out in a flash, like Mozart had done with so many of his works. Yet, No. 1 sounds like a brilliant improvisation and No. 4 has such a complex form and working out that it sounds like the end result of complicated effort on Beethoven's part. A paradox, a paradox.
These performances are simply superb. I have not generally been a fan of original instrument string quartet performances, at least in the early days, but the Quatuor Mosaïques seems head and shoulders above other similar groups. The members -- violins Erich Höbarth and Andrea Bischof, viola Anita Mitterer, and cello Christophe Coin -- met when they were all members of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus Wien, forming the quartet in 1989. They have risen to the top of their original-instrument category and indeed are among the finest quartets currently before the public. Their tuning is nigh perfect as is their ensemble. They play as one, and their musicianship is impeccable. They have been afforded lifelike sound by recording engineer Philip Nedel and producers Hervé Boissière and Helmut Muhle. Recorded in the Grafenegg Schloss 'Alte Reitschule' in Austria, the surround ambience gives them a natural aura.
They have already recorded the other four quartets of Op. 18, and I have Nos. 4 & 6 in my review queue. I have not acquired Nos. 2 and 3, but undoubtedly, because of the quality of this disc, will do so.
Urgently recomended, even to those who have multiple recordings of these quartets.