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Offline amw

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amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« on: November 04, 2017, 02:39:10 PM »
Yes, this is happening. Be excited. Or not. Your call.

I am not as systematic as some people and therefore probably won't do an exhaustive survey and also probably will at some point decide I'm sick of Beethoven for like, three months at a time. I also don't really have good equipment so take all sound quality stuff with a grain of salt.

Since many Beethoven cycles have multiple releases or whatever I will tend to talk about quartets in chronological order rather than in the order of what's on which CD, unless that is interesting for some reason—by the time someone reads this in 2020, a particular cycle might have been reissued with the quartets in a different order. This seems to have already happened with the first cycle I decided to review, the Smetana Quartet (1976-85) on Denon, which was issued on 9 CDs and then reissued on 8 CDs with the quartets rearranged to correspond to publication order.



Probably the first thing one notices about the cycle is its sound quality, which is better than any other string quartet recording I've ever heard (excepting the Denon recordings of the Kuijken Quartet, which were probably made by the same people). I won't comment on it further but in all cases throughout this cycle it seems basically perfect. The Smetana Quartet has a very tight ensemble and basically perfect intonation apart from the first violinist, but he is never out of tune enough to annoy the ears of any but the most sensitive perfect-pitch-possessing listener.

For this series the Smetana Quartet recorded the rarely heard arrangement by Beethoven of the Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 14 no. 1: Hess 34 (transposed up a semitone to F major). This is a charming piece regardless of what instrument it's played on, with the arrangement being slightly more charming and less terse than the piano original. The quartet approaches it with seriousness and urbanity, so that the charm has depth and never seems kittenish or mannered. I can't imagine a better performance at the moment, but I'll have the opportunity to hear several more, so we'll see how that goes.

First to be composed among the numbered quartets, and thus the "beginning" of the cycle, is Op. 18/3 in D major. The Smetanas get off to a weighty start here with an unusually quick first movement—4:51 without repeat—that is fiercer and livelier than the typically relaxed, "pastoral" performances one hears. Agitation and a certain heaviness also prevail in the slow second movement, whose double counterpoint seems like an homage to two other B-flat major slow movements by Haydn (Op. 33/2 and Op. 50/3), and the third movement is fine and unremarkable. The quartet's most original feature is the fleet and featherweight tarantella finale, which in its freedom and delicacy has been compared favourably to Mozart. But the performance here is heavier and more heroic, and slower—5:36 without repeat; compare Vegh '74 @ 5:03, Budapest '52 @ 4:23—turning it into a more solid, traditional finale that somehow ends up feeling less substantial. An interesting if not entirely successful start.

Op. 18/2 in G major, sometimes referred to as the "Compliments" Quartet for some odd reason, came next and is in some ways the most Haydnesque of the early quartets—the opening movement calls to mind Haydn's Op. 33/5, the slow movement with its mini-scherzo enclosed inside an adagio is a conceit invented by Haydn and the finale in particular is a distinctly Beethovenian spin on the Haydn rondo finale. The Smetana Quartet's interpretation here is significantly more Mozartian than Haydnesque: no roughness, no sharp edges, all sweetness and light, with a tinge of subtle melancholy. Everything is clean and perfectly timed, and the humour is somewhat underplayed. In particular the second movement, which is one of Beethoven's sillier conceptions, is played very straight and serious with no real sense of fun. Perhaps that was the point; it's hard to tell. Op. 18/4 in C minor, third to be completed, is also one of the two Op. 18 quartets recorded by the Smetanas prior to their complete cycle (on Westminster in this case). I have not heard the earlier recording. This one is light and not particularly dramatic, with the Smetanas proving they do have a sense of humour after all in the Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto second movement—almost parodistic in its overemphasis and attempts at seriousness. The mood overall is congenial and humorous; the heroic "C minor mood" of some of Beethoven's later works was not yet something he had developed at this stage and could still use it for comparatively light and divertimento-like works such as this quartet.

The next two quartets, Op. 18/5 in A major and Op. 18/6 in Bb major, did not build much goodwill in me given my doubts about the two previous. 18/5 started as Beethoven's attempt to emulate Mozart's K.464, the penultimate of his six quartets dedicated to Haydn, but in this reading it sounds like a pastiche by a dutiful student with not enough of the humour and grace the Mozart work possesses. The quartet is arguably Beethoven's weakest, but in a good performance it can be more substantial than this. Op. 18/6, "La Malinconia", which Beethoven chose to close the set, is light and gentle and well-mannered without ever really building momentum or memorability. It is a middle-of-the-road performance with few distinctions. The "Malinconia" adagio introduction to the finale is sweet and tender rather than particularly melancholy.

The last of the Op. 18s to be completed—it was written immediately after Op. 18/3, but the first movement in particular was extensively revised after Beethoven had completed the remaining four—but published as the first of the set, No. 1 in F major, receives a more substantial performance. It is the most large-scale of the early quartets and certainly the most dramatic. The Smetanas do bring out that drama, but in somewhat of a small-scale way, with the music never feeling particularly unsettled. In particular the famous second movement Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato is more elegiac than dramatic, without the sharp pain that some performers find in it. The scherzo and finale are in high spirits, but the finale for some reason lacks the unstoppable forward momentum of other versions. There does also exist an earlier Smetana Quartet recording of this piece, which is available on a BBC Legends recording and can also be heard on YouTube. This recording—from 1963—is in significantly worse sound quality (mono) and reveals that the quartet had, somehow, an even tighter ensemble, and freer timing. The drama unfolds on a larger scale here, the playing is rougher around the edges, and the missing forward drive is here in spades. So basically the earlier recording is far superior if you don't mind mono and, honestly, probably one of the great versions of Op. 18/1 in general.

Five years after the final touches were put on Op. 18/1—and three symphonies, an opera, and four piano concertos later—Op. 59/1 in F major, the first of the quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, was a milestone not only in Beethoven's career but in the history of the string quartet itself. No earlier work in the medium by any composer I'm aware of is on a larger scale (and Beethoven himself would not write a larger one until 1825). It's typical for performances of this quartet to have a paradoxical stillness despite its surface drama, a sense of superhuman ease and power; but the Smetana Quartet does not take that route. Their reading here is of the Beethoven of heroic struggle and triumph over adversity. Thus the first movement unfolds as a large-scale drama, the third has an unparalleled depth of feeling and a sense of darkness yielding to light with its transition to the finale. Something is missing in the scherzo perhaps, which is serious and weighty in this recording, played with some bite and roughness but no real sense of the grotesque or capricious. On the other hand, the finale—which sometimes can seem a bit too light for this work—here has some gravitas along with its high spirits and makes a totally convincing conclusion. Op. 59/1 is a qualified success.

Op. 59/2 in E minor opens with a highly concentrated movement in which the Smetanas play up the dynamic contrasts for once. It is a brusque and "take-no-prisoners" approach but one that never approaches the slashing modernism of, say, the Hagen Quartett. There is always an earthiness to the playing, for lack of a better word, and also a beautiful tone maintained even through the roughest sforzandi. The adagio is taken at an unusually quick tempo [10:42] that quite possibly originated with the Smetanas themselves and seems to be characteristic of the Czech school—compare Škampa at 11:06, Talich at 10:52. At this speed it is contemplative but not still, with agitation in the dotted rhythms and a sense of extraversion. The lack of inwardness seems to reflect the way Beethoven cleaned up his depression to present it in a more optimistic and assertive way to his brother in the Heiligenstadt Testament but that's probably too fanciful. Still, a sense of ultimate optimism through adversity seems to describe this movement well. The allegretto with its "Russian" theme is quite refined and patrician, and very far removed from the rough humour Beethoven probably intended, but no worse for that. The Smetanas bring their full power to bear on the Presto finale, which builds to a very controlled fever pitch, lively and sane rather than rushed and unhinged; as far as performances of the movement go it is one of the great ones alongside the Hagens. Thanks in part to the superb sound quality we can also hear how the two stabbing final chords are a cancrizans/retrograde of the two stabbing chords that opened the entire quartet, something I actually hadn't considered before hearing this recording. Op. 59/2 is an unqualified success.

Op. 59/3 in C major, the last of the Razumovskys, is sometimes considered a problematic work (and also doesn't seem to include a Russian folk theme as the other two did, though some have pointed to the secondary theme in the slow movement being derived from one). After its mysterious opening introduction is a very lively allegro, which the Smetanas take in a not very humorous or contrasty way, although it's still good fun. The second movement's obsessive and circling character, comparable only to the "Serioso" Quartet, is downplayed as well; this recording is somewhat lighter and softer in articulation and dynamics than the usual fare, though maintaining a dark tone colour. The quasi-classical minuet that follows is graceful but with deeper agitation, some irony, no humour; overall impression is melancholy and nostalgic, particularly the transition into the final fugue. The fugue itself is slowish and a bit pompous; the Smetanas seem to be going for weight but it falls flat in my view. So, not exactly a strong finish to the Razumovsky trio.

The next two quartets were written two years after completing the Razumovskys, at the height of his international fame in 1810—around the time of the seventh and eighth symphonies and the "Emperor"—apparently simply because Beethoven felt like it. Op. 74 in E-flat, the "Harp", opens with an introduction that builds a pleasant frisson of tension, leading into an allegro which is excellent in the Smetanas' characteristically genteel way but lacking in real vivacity. Their style works very well for this quartet so I was disappointed to find the first movement less than perfect; that said the other three do make up for it. The Adagio ma non troppo, one of Beethoven's most beautiful movements, starts out lyrical and calm but gradually deepens to end in profound melancholy—not quite the anguish of the best recordings, but in this movement where pure sonority is of the highest importance the Smetanas certainly deliver. The scherzo is taken at quite a breakneck pace and is comparatively dramatic, without the wry humour one sometimes hears in them, and the gradual fadeout reminds one of the Fifth Symphony in its portentousness. It is therefore a pure delight to hear the frothy and underplayed performance of the concluding variations, full of sweetness and humour. Definitely one of the highlights of the set once one gets past the opening movement.

Its companion quartet Op. 95 in F minor, the "Serioso", is very different in every respect, particularly its elliptical nature and the things left unsaid. The Smetanas perform the first movement quite aristocratically without much power or energy, instead highlighting the tragic aspects of the music, with the sound quality bringing out a cello line in the final bars that one rarely notices. The Allegretto "slow" movement that follows is melancholy without exaggeration, perhaps not weighty enough; the missing weight is brought to bear on the Allegro assai vivace e serioso, where the disruptive nature of Beethoven's elisions throughout the quartet really comes to the fore. Disruptive by the Smetana's standards at least (this cycle is generally quite well-mannered and prioritises beautiful tone). The same continues throughout the rondo finale, with its anguished introduction and a sense of unease maintained through the movement. Perhaps not the same sense of energy as other recordings. Most problematic in this work is the coda, which seems completely unrelated to the rest of the quartet; the Smetanas play it as though it makes sense, which only makes it weirder. I'm going to call this a qualified success.

Op. 127 in E-flat, the first of the quartets dedicated to Count Galitzin, was written mainly in 1824, fourteen years after Op. 95. Beethoven had in the meantime undergone his second great artistic crisis and written the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis. Many commentators hear an unruffled calm throughout this quartet, presumably because they were not listening to the Smetana Quartet's recording. The Maestoso opening is genuinely majestic and heroic, and a quasi-heroic cast prevails over the Allegro that follows, although gradually fading to an autumnal calm by the end of the movement. In the Adagio that follows the Smetanas maintain a "transcendent" "late-Beethoven" sound-world throughout, smoothing out the differences between the variations (and actually ignoring Beethoven's indicated tempo changes). This isn't really justified by the theme and first two variations, which are more amiable and focus primarily on sonority, but it works very well indeed for the final variation and coda, which aim for and achieve the sublime. The sense of kinship between this movement and the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis is quite pronounced here. The Scherzando vivace breaks this transcendent calm with a superb performance of one of Beethoven's most mercurial scherzi, with just the right amount of force from the players. This mood carries over to the Finale, one of the fastest ever at 6:14—compare Végh '74 @ 7:09, Busch @ 6:45, Emerson @ 6:43, Hagen @ 5:52—which is rough, forceful and flighty but with sudden moments of preternatural calm, one of the few performances where the character of the ethereal coda spills over to the rest of the movement. On a first listen I am prepared to call this one of the finest performances of Op. 127 ever recorded.

Op. 132 in A minor, which follows, offers an intense and powerful first movement although somewhat lacking in vivacity. The psychologically unsettled quality of the music is certainly brought out, but always tempered with beautiful playing and moderate tempi. The Allegro non tanto second movement, one of Beethoven's weirdest, is here played without any grotesquerie and comes across as almost a pastoral idyll, only occasionally broken by touches of darkness that flit across its still surface. The Heiliger Dankgesang, usually the main event for listeners, is hymn-like and reverent throughout; the contrast between the Lydian adagio sections and the D major "Neue Kraft fühlend" andante that recurs twice is that of the otherworldly against the worldly, but both feel like prayers. The absence of sharp contrast or dynamic extremes is not felt. The brief Alla marcia is quite polite and well-mannered and fails to shock after the adagio; the recitative is more intense and anguished, and leads to a finale that lacks in power and passion, particularly as it approaches its massive climax. Without a sufficiently powerful finale the turn to A major in the coda seems as much of a non sequitur as in Op. 95, but it doesn't need to be that way, so the lack of coherence here is a genuine issue. Op. 132 is therefore pretty mixed.

Last of the three Galitzin quartets is Op. 130 in B-flat, presented here with the Grosse Fuge as finale and the alternative finale afterwards. The most radically dissociated piece ever written by Beethoven, Op. 130 opens with what initially seems to be an introduction, which the Smetanas play with perfect timing and phrasing, and ends up being part of a sonata-form movement in two alternating tempi. The Allegro sections are not so lively here and instead have a sense of mystery and solemnity which works very well, although the development section in particular could be more hushed. The tiny Presto scherzo is rather doleful instead of playful, with its craziness downplayed, and the Andante con moto ma non troppo—Beethoven's masterpiece of sociable nostalgia—is played without either much humour or much nostalgia. (Notable for the underplaying is one key moment when the music slows to a halt after a cadential trill, and in silence the first violin takes up a long ascending scale non troppo presto; the halt here is too short, the scale too fast.) The nostalgia and sweetness are held back for the following Alla danza tedesca, helped by a slower than usual tempo. The Cavatina, which Beethoven reportedly could not think about without being moved to tears, is impassioned and quasi-operatic in style, without quite plumbing the depths of emotion that Beethoven imagined. The alternate finale (not written until 1826, Beethoven's last composition) works quite well here, probably better than the fugue; it prolongs the combined dissociation and amiability of the previous five movements and takes them right to the edge of incoherence without ever quite resolving them, and on numerous occasions whilst listening I thought that if the fugue had never existed this in itself would be considered one of Beethoven's most radical movements. The Grosse Fuge in itself is somewhat of a mixed bag; a swift tempo prevails in the opening Allegro with some bite to the tone, followed by a mostly well-mannered Meno mosso e moderato and a slightly flabby Allegro molto e con brio that starts to pick up and gather momentum once the fugue resumes, eventually building a sense of inevitability and power. Points docked for ritardando into the final chord. Op. 130/133 is also mixed, but more good than bad.

Beethoven's penultimate and most famous quartet, Op. 131 in C-sharp minor, is given a weaker performance than I expected, apart from a superb opening fugue with more intensity and less vibrato than most of the other performances in the cycle. The following tiny Allegro is more substantial and weighty than usual, no premonition of the Mendelssohn fairy scherzo here. A nice transition leads into the variations, which in this reading have more nostalgia than whimsy; the performance is a little bit drier than usual and somewhat lacking in humour. The following Presto is taken unaccountably slowly at 6:12—compare Busch @ 5:11, Brooklyn Rider @ 5:09, Hagen @ 5:32, Emerson @ 4:33—and ends up being quite dull compared to performances at a more "normal" tempo. The sixth movement, essentially a mini-Cavatina, is somewhat perfunctory, and the Finale is on the light side without ever really achieving much depth. So ultimately the last three movements sink it for me. With Op. 131 one can't pick and choose since all the movements are continuous.

Finally there is Op. 135 in F, the last of Beethoven's compositions (apart from the alternate finale to Op. 130), sometimes seen as a Haydnesque throwback but in reality one of Beethoven's most sophisticated creations. The first movement is very well performed here with an ideal mixture of grace and weirdness. The scherzo is quite slow at 3:47, comparable to the Mosaïques and Eroica Quartets, and lacks both the energy and the sense of timing essential to make it work; in particular the trio comes across as someone telling a joke but waiting too long to give away the punch line. It's a damp squib. Luckily the Lento assai is much better, calm and ultimately elegiac—somewhat like a eulogy in fact, rhetorical but subdued and in an atmosphere of deep stillness. The finale, sometimes considered outrageously comedic by Beethovenian standards, is played quite seriously here, but that actually turns out quite well with the "Muß es sein?" introduction full of agitation and the following "Es muß sein!" Allegro presenting a convincing path to an "earned" happy ending despite tribulations. It's quite possible the Smetanas meant to play this movement with more humour and it simply didn't come through, but overall, Op. 135 is a qualified success.

The last six quartets were recorded as part of the Smetana Quartet's more famous Beethoven recording, now available on Supraphon. I haven't listened to it yet but plan to. Quite honestly, although I enjoyed a good number of the quartets, it took a bit of sitzfleisch to get through the cycle simply because of the persistent sense of a lack of energy. That said, Op. 59/1 and 2, 74 and 127 are definitely among the best versions of those works that I've heard and the worst sin committed against any of the other quartets by the Smetanas is making them unmemorably middle-of-the-road. (Ok, except the slow scherzo in Op. 131, that was weird.) I will take a little break and probably do another cycle before I come back to the Smetanas since as much as I appreciated the quality of their playing, the sound of the ensemble never seemed to appeal to me; a lot of surface beauty and not much physicality I guess.

Overall, maybe a justly neglected cycle, but worth hearing. I don't really know yet where I will grade it.

Offline Todd

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #1 on: November 04, 2017, 04:11:15 PM »
...and also probably will at some point decide I'm sick of Beethoven for like, three months at a time.


Is this possible?

Anyway, excellent write up.  More please.
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Offline Gurn Blanston

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #2 on: November 04, 2017, 05:32:59 PM »
Very nice recap, thanks for that. I hadn't heard this set, so it is all new to me. But it does make me want to pull out one of my own sets and waltz (not run!) through it just to refresh how good these all are. :)

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Offline mc ukrneal

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #3 on: November 04, 2017, 05:40:27 PM »
More please!
Offenbach gets a raw deal in recordings considering his talent! For a discussion of this outstanding composer too little recorded: http://www.good-music-guide.com/community/index.php/topic,5572.

Offline amw

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #4 on: November 04, 2017, 07:28:55 PM »
Is this possible?
I guess I'm about to find out....

Also btw even though I did put my name in the title anyone is free to offer their own aesthetic judgments as well/call me wrong, etc. Just in case anyone was wondering

Earthed

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #5 on: November 04, 2017, 08:18:45 PM »
Great idea for a thread and your first instalment was very detailed and interesting - thank you very much!. :)
« Last Edit: November 04, 2017, 08:20:26 PM by Earthed »

Offline Jo498

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #6 on: November 05, 2017, 02:13:10 AM »
While I have not heard any of their Denon Beethoven in cases (Mozart, probably Dvorak) where I could compare ca. early 60s Smetana Q with their mid-70s-80s recordings the earlier ones were usually less relaxed and more intense. Somewhat like your comparison of the early live op.18/1 with the late one.
So the earlier Supraphon recording of the late quartets + op.95 are certainly worth investigating. There is another early 60s studio recording of (I think) op.18/4 and op.59/3 for which the same might be true but I do not know about availability and have not heard them (as these two are among my least favorite Beethoven quartets, I am not going to any lengths to get a chance to).
I think these last two are from a partial? Beethoven cycle divided between the most prominent Czech quartets of the early 60s, e.g. in op.59 the Vlach (not the new one on Naxos) did #1, the Janacek #2 (probably the recording that ended up in the Universal Original Masters box) and the Smetana #3.
« Last Edit: November 05, 2017, 04:27:52 AM by Jo498 »
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Offline aligreto

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #7 on: November 05, 2017, 03:56:34 AM »
Great beginning to the thread. I enjoyed reading your comments in the initial post and look forward to more  :)
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Offline Florestan

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #8 on: November 05, 2017, 08:54:40 AM »
At long last, Todd has got some stiff competition in the art of writing Beethoven reviews.  :)

Keep the thread going, missus!
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Offline Daverz

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #9 on: November 05, 2017, 11:22:33 AM »
I've had the Middle Quartets from this cycle for ages.  A good excuse to try the highlights you mention.

I also have the Supraphon Late Quartets set.  That has a beautiful Op. 132.  I'll have to check the timings on the Op. 131.

Offline amw

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #10 on: November 11, 2017, 11:45:04 AM »
Smetana Update



Decided I'd listen to this (Smetana Quartet on Supraphon rec. 1961-1971) whilst the Denon set was still fresh in my memory, with an ear for comparison. Somewhat of an addendum to the earlier review. (I didn't hunt down the Westminster disc with op.18/4 and 59/3 but that's on the agenda as well.)

In general, the interpretive differences between this series and the quartets in the complete cycle are not very significant. A beautiful rich tone prevails, although the sound quality is not as amazing, and there is not much drive or humour compared to many modern recordings. Their vision is fundamentally of a sane and sensible Beethoven with not much room for anguish, gaiety, wildness or terror, but always favouring reverence and positivity. That said, the many small individual differences add up—and in some cases are the differences between a performance that doesn't come off and one that does, or between a good performance and a sublime one. The Supraphon recordings are in general tighter, less relaxed, and less broad in scale than the Denon ones.

In Op. 95 both recordings are similar in their basic concept: the music is tragic but in an elliptical way, rarely playing out head-on clashes and without much drama. The first movement in the Supraphon recording has somewhat less aristocratic nobility, and individual lines are not as highlighted by the engineering; this leaves it sounding merely underpowered compared to the Denon, neither one thing nor t'other. The Supraphon slow movement is significantly less hushed, the rising tritones in its central fugue section sounding like passionate outcries, and sounds more tragic and more effective than the Denon. It leads into an Allegro assai vivace e serioso that is broadly similar to the later reading, if faster and even more disruptive. In the Supraphon finale a sense of energy being released and rapidly dissipating lends the rondo more of a sense of closure, with the final climax before it dies away into soft F major chords seeming like a final, failed push with all one's remaining strength. But then that coda once again is played as though it resolves something. Interesting and, like a good performance of Op. 95, leaves some questions hanging. Edge: 50/50

The Denon Op. 127 continues to be one of my favourite performances, so I had high expectations for the Supraphon Op. 127 as well. It's..... okay. The differences are quite minor, despite this performance being recorded twenty years earlier (this recording dates from 1961, the Denon from 1981, and there's another recording of this quartet they made in 1971 that has not made it to CD): the Smetanas favour a broadly heroic view of the quartet rather than the soft gentle late idyll of many other readings. The first movement is generally louder and more dynamic than in the Denon recording, for some reason the adjective "virile" came to mind. The variations, as in the later recording, are played without observing Beethoven's tempo changes, but also start from a place of lyrical amiability rather than deep transcendence. It's only as the E major third variation dissolves and yields to the fourth variation that the Smetanas achieve the sublime, and the remainder of the movement is played with the utmost elevation. It's good stuff. Where this performance falls down is the last two movements, which are perfectly good; the scherzo is perhaps more like a normal heroic scherzo rather than a mercurial flighty fantasy, and the finale perhaps is not unsettled enough and treats the coda more like a break in the action than a natural extension of what came before, but both of these interpretations are totally fine and in fact conventional. What's missing is the sense of revelation. Edge: Denon

It took me about two movements to get really into the Supraphon Op. 132, which like the later recording is a quite subtle performance. The first movement, despite its moments of drama, is always sliding towards melancholy and turbidity, undercutting itself; the Allegro ma non tanto is livelier and more grotesque than the Denon recording and only reverts to the typical sense of pastoral contemplation in its trio section. On re-listening, however, both movements struck me as satisfying on their own terms. The Heiliger Dankgesang receives a significantly deeper performance: minimal vibrato is used in the Molto adagio sections to contribute to their archaic feel, setting up a greater contrast with the Neue Kraft fühlend sections. As in the Denon recording, one can quibble only with a lack of intensity. A stronger Alla marcia leads to the finale, which is passionate enough but where it feels as though the ensemble is always flinching from the starkest passages. Even at the climax the turn to A major feels like a deflection rather than a triumph, but one that is somehow shaped into a convincing conclusion. Edge: Supraphon

With Op. 130/133 my first quibble with the Supraphon recording is the lack of exposition repeat. It's actually not such a downside here: for once the Smetana Quartet is willing to take steps beyond their sane and neatly ordered view of Beethoven and present this first movement without trying to apologise for its dissociated and formally conflicted nature. It's kind of a step up from the Denon, but a sense of spirituality is lost and the playing is less hushed, so, fairly even. The Presto is mostly fun, not as doleful as in the Denon, and the Andante is not so much fun—more well-behaved. The moments of weirdness are not put into relief and somewhat underplayed. The Alla danza tedesca is almost identical to the later recording, down to the timings; this version has somewhat less nostalgia and somewhat more rhythmic freedom. The first big difference from the Denon is the Cavatina, which is very hushed and played with an almost flat affect, more like a lament than a love song. The Smetanas pull off some extremely soft playing here at the passage Beethoven marked beklemmt, where the music nearly disappears. Only right after this section and then at the very end of the movement do we get any hints of passion. With the Grosse Fuge and alternative finale we are back on the territory of the Denon recording; the GF has more energy and drive, and the alternative finale sounds less revolutionary and powerful and more Haydnesque than in the later version. Edge: Close to 50/50, but I do favour Supraphon slightly.

Op. 131 opens with a much more flowing and emotionally raw fugue, which seems to slow down in the middle section before reaching a wonderfully resonant and deep climax. A noticeable improvement on the already-good fugue from the Denon recording. The Allegro is much the same, somewhat mercurial, and follows through a strong transition to the andante and variations. The quartet captures the shifting moods more effectively here, never aiming for the sublime and always colouring the music with enough of the grotesque to remain humorous, but always tinged through with nostalgia and melancholy—listen to the 9/4 variation, Adagio ma non troppo e semplice, where the use of vibrato makes the music sound almost like sobs. The Presto is up to tempo, a nice change from the Denon recording, and generally unobjectionable although I tend to listen for sharper sul ponticello playing. The mini-Cavatina is still a glorified introduction but leading this time to a finale that is more effective, still light but with enough tempo variance and disruption to cap the quartet nicely. Not one of the great Op. 131s, apart from the variations, but a very high quality one. Edge: Supraphon

Op. 135 is broadly similar to the Denon recording throughout with some adjustments: the first two movements have more grace, the Scherzo is played slightly faster and with a better sense of timing (although the central eruption does not deliver here either), the finale is noticeably less serious and heroic and more good fun with the "fairy march" being a particular highlight. As always though the centrepiece is the Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, played in much the same way as in the Denon recording but somehow sounding even more beautiful and more profound. (Or "pedestrian", if you are Stravinsky.) Edge: Supraphon

If you are planning to collect the Smetana Quartet recordings of Beethoven this set can supplant any volumes of the Denon set you can't find, apart from the Denon recording of Op. 127, which remains a highlight. I wouldn't call any of the recordings in this earlier set favourites of mine, but they are never less than excellent and there's nothing that truly falls flat.

Online snyprrr

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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #11 on: November 12, 2017, 08:25:18 AM »
Suske,.... NEEEEXT!!
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Re: amw reviews beethoven string quartet cycles
« Reply #12 on: November 12, 2017, 02:06:32 PM »
Smetana Update




A fine post indeed. Thank you for the update.
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