And so, after months of waiting, the final installment has appeared in the complete Beethoven cycle from the Tokyo String Quartet on Harmonia-Mundi.
I don't think there can be any doubt that this is the most beautifully played and recorded Beethoven quartet cycle there has ever been. It certainly deserves to be ranked alongside the finest recordings of recent decades, which for me are those by the Quartetto Italiano (Philips) and the Takacs (Decca). The Takacs is more attuned to Beethoven's toughness of spirit and has a more biting rhythmic attack. The Quartetto Italiano has not survived in the catalogue by accident: it has great intellectual rigour and refinement of sound, but this new recording from the Tokyo Quartet makes it seem unsmiling (mannered?) by comparison. I know other people will have other favourite recordings of their own (I own a wonderful recording of the Op.18 quartets recorded by the Budapest Quartet way back in 1952, which still blows most of the competition out of the water), but for my money the ones I know by the Vegh (awful sound), Lindsay, Vermeer and Emerson quartets are all outclassed by this new recording, as is the earlier Tokyo Quartet version on RCA.
Throughout this new Beethoven cycle the Tokyo Quartet has displayed the kind of humanity and moderation that only comes with maturity. Nothing is rushed, tempos always feel natural, there is no unnecessary point-making, and always a sense of structure unfolding in units far bigger than mere paragraphs. First violinist Martin Beamer produces a seemingly endless stream of glorious tone. In fact the whole quartet is playing on a particularly special group of instruments by Stradivarius that was assembled by Paganini - and from which they draw an amazing variety of string tones and textures. They are a wonderful quartet to watch in a live concert (cellist Clive Greensmith is an unfailingly benign and often humorous presence), and on CD you never forget you are listening to four individual human beings joined in a musical conversation.
But what the Tokyo Quartet brings to this great music above all is a quality of joyful rapture. It is easy to forget what a supreme master of melody Beethoven was, but listening to this recording is to hear as if for the first time how in these final years it was song more than anything else that was just pouring out of him. I was constantly reminded of Shelley's great poem To a Skylark:
As from thy presence showers forth a rain of melody.
Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
I hope that doesn't sound gushy because I'm trying to make a serious point: this recording constantly reminds me of literary critic Harold Bloom and his books on Romantic poetry and the Lucretian tradition. One of the ways of understanding Beethoven is to remember to place him, not just as a giant in the tradition of Bach and Haydn and Mozart and Brahms, but also as a giant in the tradition of Keats and Shelley and Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman.
It is difficult to pick outstanding moments. Opus 131 receives a glorious performance. The glowing slow movement of Op. 127 seems suspended in time like it is never going to end. The Heiliger Dankesang movement of Op.132 also has a wonderful sense of stillness, and when the Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) moment breaks through, it is a thing of pure joy.
Incidentally, I don't know why the recordings the Fitzwilliam Quartet made of Op. 130 and Op. 132 in the mid-1980s aren't better known and appreciated, or why the Fitzwilliam Quartet never recorded a complete Beethoven cycle. They take this music to an altogether different level where Beethoven seems to be moving in and out of a private world of grief and madness and pain. If you don't know them I can't recommend them too highly.
But perhaps it is the Grosse Fugue that receives the most astounding performance of all, at one moment recalling the sound world of Bach's D minor Chaconne, then the elation of the soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass quartet from the final movement of Beethoven's own Choral symphony. I don't think I have ever heard a performance of the Grosse Fugue that combines such glorious singing tone with such textural clarity. In the past I have often felt the Grosse Fugue was somewhat oppressive, now I realise I wasn't really listening.