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Beethoven: The String Quartets (DG Collectors Edition)
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 20 August 2011
I've spent a lot of time searching for the ideal box set of the Quartets. Most of what I've found is unsatisfactory and I have not yet found my perfect set. The Lindsays are in some ways the most satisfying, but I've come to disagree with many of their interpretive decisions. And besides, I listened to them a bit too much. And so I've been doing a bit of experimenting. The Tokyo quartet are quite good in Op. 18, although they didn't do the complete quartets up to Op. 135...and their viola dude plays too quietly too much of the time. The Hagen quartet are quite radical, but where is the box set? And the Artemis quartet play very well and are beautifully recorded...but they often get their speeds fairly wrong. This brings me to the Emerson Quartet. I am very pleased with much of this and feel that this set should probably be recommended. The playing is excellent and so is the sound quality. Interpretively they are very solid - most of the time. Op. 59 No. 1 is nice and they make the finale sound like incomprehensible insanity. That's the right result! However in Op. 59 No. 2 I was very disappointed to see that they neglected to repeat the development section in mvt i. Dudes! This is freakin' Beethoven! He doesn't always repeat these sections! There must be a reason. Here is the reason. The coda is a big shock in this movement. The direction changes so unexpectedly. But it goes in a subtle direction and much of the shock value is achieved by the cumulative effect of all the preceding material. That's why B. wants you to hear the development twice. He has carefully calculated the drama and you, Emersons, have failed to understand this crucial point. And then the tempo for ii is marked Molto Adagio. So why play it so fast? If you get the speed right here this quartet will sound like one of the foothills on the way to the Himalayas (Quartets opp. 127-135). And yet, the very next movement, the Allegretto is taken at a speed a bit slower than many others play and the result is very successful...partly since E minor is such an ochre tonality and doesn't feel like going too fast. Beethoven is very specific indeed about the repeats here and the quartet are obliged to obey....the excessive amount of repetition is proved to be part of the drama and it kicks you in the gut. Schubert picked up on doing lots of repetitions but didn't understand the dramaturgical thinking behind B.'s ideas. Isn't it strange that the true madness of the Op. 59 Quartets is in the finales? This finale to Op. 59 no. 2 is in the wrong freakin' key! It's in C major! It keeps trying to resolve in E minor but immediately kicks back into C!!!!!! In the civilisation that is to come there will one day be a performance of this piece, probably in somewhere like Samoa or Sudan, and the audience will actually giggle audibly everytime we go into C major. Then music will have achieved the victory! Sorry if I have digressed a little, by the way.

I also believe that my perfect box set, when I find it, will play the Dankgesang in Op. 132 so slowly that it takes at least 19 minutes. The Guaneri quartet play it at this Messiaen-style speed and the effect is so good that everything else sounds fast.

Added a few weeks later: I reduced this from 4 stars to 3 because I have just listened to the slow movement of Op. 127. Perfunctory! What a rushed, insensitive approach. It's like one of those religious services carried out purely for form's sake - delivered by a sceptical lukewarm 'priest' to an unbelieving congregation. So what! So, let us away to find another quartet. Our day's work is not yet done.
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