- Audio CD (22 Sept. 2009)
- Number of Discs: 9
- Format: Box set
- Label: Foghorn Classics
- ASIN: B002XDE9GI
- Other Editions: MP3 Download
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 433,978 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
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L. Van Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets Box set
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I'll start by copping to the fact that I am especially a fan of the late quartets and Op 130 (avec fugue) in particular, and my preference is for what I consider to be a balanced reading of the work that doesn't try too hard to separate the "free" from the "studied" aspects of the Big Fugue -- therefore, a huge part of my decision hinged on whether a quartet did op 130/133 in a way that 'felt right' to me. My overall orientation as a listener is as someone who is coming from a modern / contemporary music background in general, so caveat lector.
So, I had decided that one of the sets I purchased needed to be in what seems in my view to be the modern American style as epitomized by the Emersons : topnotch ensemble playing, high energy, tremendous technical assurance, quite precise intonation , great sound quality, and a musical approach that betrays an obvious familiarity with and perhaps affinity for 20th-century art music / jazz.
In this category, I narrowed it down to the Emersons themselves, and the Takacs -- though I also liked the Orion who are a little spikier and the Cleveland who hew a little more closely to the QI style, in my opinion -- and this set, the Alexanders. I picked the Alexanders over the Emersons (who were half the price) and the Takacs for the following reasons :
1) The biggest reason that I picked the Alexander over the Takacs, who are just as excellent in every regard and who share many aspects (indeed, I would be surprised if the Alexanders had not intentionally modeled certain aspects of their interpretations after the Takacs), is that the Alexander play LvB with a heightened sense of *drama* and *duende* without ever succumbing to the vaudevillian or the cartoonish. Again to use Op 130 as an example -- whereas the Takacs play this with a palpable sense of jubilation and swing in the faster sections, the Alexanders play with an unmistakable sense of apprehension and questioning, right up to the redemptive transformation of the ending (where the opening theme morphs from minor to major and lilts to the finish). The Alexander also impart a distinctively more evolving, narrative feeling to their performances of many of the more complex pieces (130, 131, 132, all three 59s, in particular). Equally good and valid interpretations, I just personally prefer the darker, more searching and maybe anomic vibe of the ASQ.
Special addendum to the above : I have not heard any group do a more profound and moving version of Op 130/133 [that suits my tastes]. The way the ASQ 'enunciates' the urgency of the presto where most groups slur, the way their cavatina seems riven with both regret and hope, and the way they present the "big picture" and complicated emotions of the fugue in a non-fractured fashion -- simply wonderful.
2) Of all the American groups that I auditioned, the Alexander String Quartet puts the most work, I believe, into tempo selection and control, and rhythmic concerns in general. So many of the groups I listened to play this repertoire at amphetamine pace and, to paraphrase the sage Chuck Berry, risk obscuring the richness of what's going on in the music. The Emersons themselves do this big-time -- sometimes, I feel like they are playing fast for the sheer fun of it like thrash metal stars. But the Alexanders consistently pick tempi that suit the music and stick to it, rarely dragging / rushing and practically never playing with what I would call excessive rubato. One can really hear what is going on in these pieces, and the emotional information of the rhythm is strongly communicated. * This depth of consideration for the music (and, dare I say the listener!) really amplifies my enjoyment of this set.
3) The combination of tremendous sound quality (as has been noted by other reviewers), nickel-plugging intonation, and especially *outstanding* use and control of dynamics by the players make the listening experience of this set extraordinarily pleasurable. The sound, though a touch more reverberant than I personally prefer, is otherwise beyond outstanding, it is tip-top. Really great clarity and wonderful representation of the cello and viola; the timbre of these instruments is 'toothy' and exciting to hear (compare to the very different, but equally wonderful, timbres on the Vegh or Prazak sets). As regards intonation -- I am by no means a stickler for intonation; I love the stereo Vegh set whose first violin is absolutely as eccentric in microtonality as is commonly commented, and I fully enjoy the fire and passion of the Lindsay set which likewise displays significantly unorthodox pitch sensibility, but there is certainly something nice about listening to a quartet where everybody is more or less in frequency agreement (a feat whose difficulty I surely appreciate!). There are really only a couple of significant 'clams' on this whole set. [The Emerson, Takacs, particularly QI, TQ, Alban Berg, and a few other groups that I auditioned are in this same category.] And the Alexanders' dynamics -- well, just let me say, they are remarkable. The emotional weight that they impart via this means to material like Op 132 (or 131 for that matter) is devastating, but what really "gets" me is how they use this ability to bring forth additional vitality in the more upbeat works like Op 59 #1 (e.g., second movement freeze-frame / strobe effects like few have achieved) and Op 74 (e.g., glittering arpeggios; constant surprise in the presto).
Other random notes : the cello player is excellent, he plays with sensitivity and power, and really is simpatico with the other players. First violin guy is molto bene and does not screech or overdominate, no surprise there -- my understanding is that Z. Grafilo is well-known in the Bay Area as a top cat. Viola guy -- well, let me just say I'm glad he is mixed forward; wonderful playing and timbre. Second violin is likewise very good, hell, the whole band is obviously great or else the quartet wouldn't be great.
I can't emphasize enough how good the ensemble playing is on this set. These guys have clearly practiced the living daylights out of this material and devoted a lot of thought and discussion to the artistic choices involved in how to play each piece. And yet, each performance crackles with bright-eyed enthusiasm and freshness -- there is not a stale cut among these nine discs -- they present this as a living music.
In short, though I ended up with a bunch of LvB quartets on CD in the end, and each group in this class [I mean, we're discussing groups at the very top level of musicianship here] has its own merits and interpretations worth hearing and having -- if I *absolutely had* to choose just one set to keep, it would probably be this one, for all the reasons stated above : I love the interpretations; the tempi, rhythm, and general musicianship are outstanding; and the sound quality is wonderful.
*[note : the only quartet that I think is really rushed on this set is Op 59 #1, which is nearly always played too fast for me to really grab the full bloom of the melody -- only the stereo Vegh set really nails my preference. Obviously, I'm in the minority -- even my other Euro favorite, the Prazak, plays it a little faster. The Vegh, humorously enough, sound like they hate Op 130 and can't wait to be done with it -- S. Vegh rushes the tempo increasingly throughout the piece]
*subnote #2 : you may notice I don't talk about Op 18 much -- well, I just don't prefer to listen to those quartets often, really, in comparison to the others, though I like to have them available. While I find them perfectly enjoyable, they sound very similar to the better works of Haydn, Mozart -- and I prefer LvB in his later musical maturity. The Alexander play Op 18 comparably well to the Emersons, though if I actually want to listen to Op 18, I will actually spin up the QI version first, or the Vegh -- these groups seem to take a bit more glee in playing those works]
"To summarise: the ASQ provide a most natural feel to their interpretations. I admired their splendidly matched phrasing together with an intuitive grasp of structure. The dynamics are rarely overstated and their choice of tempi feels just right. The exceptionally clear and dry sound is closely caught. I loved the quite exceptional essays from musicologist Eric Bromberger. These add appeal to the overall presentation. The ASQ can take considerable credit from these superb interpretations. Their dedication and insight has paid off as this set is one of the very finest available. The Takács on Decca are now no longer clear first choice in the catalogue. This Foghorn set is unquestionably one of my 'Records of the Year' for 2009."
While there are already plenty of reviews here on amazon, one more endorsement is in order. Most significantly, since purchasing the Alexander Quartet cycle 18 months ago I find myself rarely listening to the Alban Berg Quartet's recordings. The logic and beauty of the Alexander's conceptions are completely convincing, and the sonics are spectacular.
I acquired the Quartetto Italiano's legendary Beethoven cycle some time after having written this review, and found myself drifting away from the Alexander Quartet's recordings, just as I had drifted away from the Alban Berg Quartet's cycle after listening to the Alexander's. This is not just enthusiasm over something new or different. As much as I found to admire in the ASQ's recordings at the time, they've been firmly replaced by the QI's for a number of reasons. Mostly, the QI found just the right place between classicism and modernism - a 1960's outlook that has endured the test of time - whereas the ASQ exhibit a little too much preoccupation with technical perfection, a trait they share with nearly all modern ensembles. The Quartetto Italiano's readings are, simply put, warmer, and more humane. In the end I would rather have more of the music and this is what you get with the QI.
In view of this, I've changed my rating to four stars.