Many lovers of Beethoven's string quartets tend to focus on the mature middle-period quartets and the ground-breaking late quartets, ignoring to some extent the six quartets the composer wrote before 1800, his Op. 18 set. Some feel that they are simply extensions of Haydn's or Mozart's art and not worthy of as much attention as the later more 'Beethovenian' works. To some extent, one supposes, this is true, but these six quartets repay close scrutiny in their own right. Quatuor Mosaïques, an original instrument quartet using gut-strung instruments actually made in the 17th and 18th centuries, has recently made an addition (Quartets 1 & 4) to their traversal of the set begun in the early 1990s. The present disc containing Quartets Nos. 5 & 6 were originally recorded in 1994 and issued on the Astrée label. They are now released as a companion to the new recording, which I recently reviewed here. There is no explanation for the ten year gap between the present recording and that of Nos 1 & 4 which were recorded in 2004. And there is no word about when, or if, they will be recording Quartets No. 2 & 3. One hopes they will do so, though, because the two discs already issued are very worthy additions to the huge Beethoven quartet discography. In my review of Quartets 1 & 4 I suggested that that recording is a must-have for musiclovers who already have multiple recordings of those quartets, largely because of their 'new' take on the works. The same holds true for this CD as well. Quatuor Mosaïques is, simply put, the best original instrument quartet currently playing. The sounds they make are indescribably gorgeous. They use a modicum of vibrato, but much less than is typical for modern-instrument groups. The sound produced by gut strings paradoxically gives these quartets are more 'modern' (or perhaps I mean 'Romantic') sound than those on modern metal strings. The sweetness and depth of their sound must be experienced to be understood.
As for Quartets Nos. 5 and 6, they are extremely well-known works and I won't go into much description of the music itself. For me there are some passages that never fail to engage me. In Quartet No. 5 alone: the accents on the third beat that recur incessantly in the trio of the Menuetto; the unexpected chromaticism of the quartet, particularly in a couple of the variations in Mvt. III; the chordal second theme of the Allegro finale, the formal reminiscences of Mozart's A major quartet, K. 464. There is plenty to delight here. The same is true of the final quartet of the set. I am always affected by the contrast between the almost trivial-sounding madcap Mvt. III followed by the last movement, subtitled 'La malinconia.' (Beethoven marked the Adagio introduction to the movement 'Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza' ['This piece must be played with greatest delicacy'], which Quatuor Mosaïques does movingly. Their subtlety here reminds me of the sound of the great Busch Quartet Beethoven quartet recordings from the 1930s.
This disc is a must-have for those who already think they know the Op. 18 quartets. And a first-time buyer of these quartets would not go wrong here, either.
I think all three discs in this series of Quatuor Mosaiques recording of the Op.18 quartets are excellent, and I am glad to see them reissued and easily available.
These are Beethoven's earliest quartets and as such often don't attract as much attention as the Rasoumovsky Quartets or the towering masterpieces which are the Late Quartets, but they are very good indeed. Beethoven's String Quartets contain some of his very finest music, in my view, and his genius is well in evidence here. These are in many ways still in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but bear Beethoven's distinctive stamp; the fire and passion, for example, as well as lyrical beauty, the introduction of a scherzo rather than a minuet and trio in some quartets, and so on. These may be early works, but they have a maturity and depth of content which makes them far more than just juvenilia - and they are a joy to listen to, as well.
I already have excellent recordings of these quartets by the Alban Berg Quartet and the Takacs Quartet, but I think these may be my favourite. Quatuor Mosiaques are a period instrument ensemble who play with very limited vibrato and this, combined with the warmth of sound from their instruments gives the music a roundedness and inner glow which suits it very well. They are superb musicians, technically impeccable and with an understanding of both the music and each others' playing which makes these performances something very special, in my view.
I don't think you can go wrong with any of the three discs in this series. They are all superbly played and recorded and very nicely presented. They stand very well alongside the Mosaiques wonderful recordings of Haydn and Mozart, and I recommend them very warmly indeed.