Author Topic: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen  (Read 802 times)

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Offline Herman

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LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« on: June 20, 2020, 06:38:25 AM »
In so far as hype amounts to anything in classical music and in classical chamber music in particular the Beethoven around the World box by the Quatuor Ebène was awaited with great anticipation. The QE is one of the hottest string quartets of the moment and the project of recording the complete Beethoven quartets in various locations all over the world, including such a far cry from the Salle Pleyel or Wigmore Hall as Nairobi, Kenya, where Beethoven’s final word in the genre, op 135, was performed and recorded, seemed exciting. Time flies. Now it just seems like a waste of CO2 and, perhaps, unnecessary attrition on the members of the band.

Reading through the sumptuous booklet (and thinking how cheap the box really is, less than 50 euros) one cannot help but think tons of donor money have been sunk into this project, in order to produce what may or may not be one of the last solid Beethoven quartet CD issues.

The Ebene is technically unsurpassed. They can do anything. My problem with the Beethoven performances in this box is, and that’s what they do. Anything. I wanted to like, or even love this Beethoven box, because I like the Ebène, and I like their Beethoven that’s been posted on youtube from Festival Wissembourg. However, even though the performances in the Around the World box are live recordings, I find them insufferably contrived. Everything has to be phrased just so. And did I hear this detail of execution?

I got out the Beethoven box by the Artemis Quartett, and listened to a couple of late quartets. Op 127, in E flat (the four-movement quartet). Meh with the Ebene, great with the Artemis, really really great. I also got out the Petersen Quartett recordings on Capriccio singles, every late quartet, coupled with an op 18 piece. The Petersen’s 127 doesn’t quite match the intensity of the Artemis version, but certainly sounds more with it than the Ebene.
The great, epic 132 quartet, with the Heiliges Dankgesang. Predictably the Ebene is doing a lot with non-vibrato playing, as does the Artemis (to a lesser degree). The Petersen outplays the competition, making me realize what a stunning piece this is. Just the sheer degree of sonorities these simple often very lyrical lines produce, once they are stacked on top of each other! And when you (try to) play just one line it sounds like nothing. The music is really created by the interaction of the four instruments. This is string quartet heaven. It makes one realize once again that the Beethoven couldn’t hear a thing story does not make any sense.

The opus 131, C sharp is a tough one. To be honest, none of the three recordings satisfy me. With the Ebene I found my attention wandering after the beautiful opening fugue. At the beginning of the anadante variations there is this funny march, with the cello playing bass, three pizz notes every bar. For some reason the Ebène's cellist thinks we would get bored if he didn't do ritards in those three notes (every time!). The opposite is true in my case. I find it tasteless and distracting. The Artemis recording of the 131 is an earlier broadcast take preceding the studio recordings by ten years; it’s really too bad they didn’t go to the studio to record this piece again when they were at their best (i.e. Prishepenko / Sigl / Weigle / Runge). The Petersen is the best out of these three, but doesn’t quite make it either.
I’ll go back to the Op 130 in B flat some other time.

So, my recommendation is you might as well get the Artemis box and try to get hold of some Petersen singles if you can. I see that the Petersen's 132 is priced at over a thousand euros by somebody's who's is perhaps as much attached to it as I am...
« Last Edit: June 21, 2020, 12:43:48 AM by Herman »

Offline Herman

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2020, 08:48:47 AM »
Listening to three versions of the B flat major quartet op 130 a couple of times brings me back to the mid-seventies when the LaSalle recording of this same piece (concluded by the Grosse Fuge) was my first string quartet LP. (The C sharp and the A minor followed soon.) Each of these late quartets presents an unique sound world. The op. 130 has a strangely improvisatory manner, as if the music is finding itself out as it’s being played. There are a lot of stop – go moments such as in the menuet-andante where one of the fiddles sounds a long solo note as if to offer a tuning anchor (which is rather funny because there are shitloads of flats in this movement and rarely an open string). It’s the most diverse one of the late quartets, with the huge wild fugue at the end, a strange waltz-like movement and a slow movement that sounds like a pastiche on a bel canto aria, with a damsel in distress singing.

The op 130 is perhaps the best-performed piece among the late quartets in the Ebène box. I don’t even mind hearing some ensemble problems in the fast runs in the opening movement. The two inner movements, the courante-like presto and the andante menuet are very well done. The first violin is often playing with minimal bow, just one hair, creating a kind of moonlit whistle that suits the music. At some point though it begins to grate that he’s consistently playing just a smidgen flat to add to the D flat mood. It’s a little Amadeja Vu, these intonation issues, although I’m sure it’s a matter of choice here, rather than age.

Unfortunately the Ebène loses me with the cavatina. It’s played at a snail pace, everything’s emphasized and underlined and if this is a bel canto aria, the soprana is clearly not feeling to well. The tone is maudlin throughout. Perhaps some people like this; I don’t. I think it’s bad policy to perform the cavatina as if it is the big emotional climax of op. 130. The Grosse Fugue is. The cavatina is supposed to be a beautiful song; not the moment where we meet this music’s maker and his broken heart.

To achieve this the cavatina is best built from the bottom up, the cello and viola providing a steady pace. In the Artemis recording (fortunately a studio recording by the Artemis’ best iteration, as named in the previous post, with Natalia Prishepenko on first violin and Friedemann Weigle on viola)  this is what happens. The cavatino is soulful, but it does pull above its weight by slowing down and milking the sentiment. The great thing about the Artemis performance is that it has the energy and feeling of spontaneity of a live recording, whereas the Ebène only feels live because one hears the occasional minimal unevenness. I don’t have a problem with the unevenness. The famous quartets of the fifties had these problems all the time, because they just did not have the technical power to even come close to the finesse of today’s quartets in terms of ensemble playing.

The Artemis manages (just like the Petersen) to perform the Grosse Fugue really well. Used to be quartets opted for the lighter finale because the fugue was just too forbidding for the audience. It was supposed to be musical Mondrian. The Artemis plays it like the beautiful music it is. So again my recommendation is just get the Artemis box if you want a great 21st century Beethoven recording, and try to get a Petersen op 132 for less than a thousand euros.

Offline JBS

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #2 on: June 21, 2020, 10:11:02 AM »
I will only interject here  to say  that I think the Ebene recordings do in fact have the spontaneity and energy of live recordings.

I also have a different  approach  to the Op 130. The cavatina is an emotional climax, the Grosse Fuge is the composer reintegrating himself with reality after baring his heart.

Been quite a while since I last listened to the Artemis recordings, so I can't say how I might differ with you about them.

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Offline aukhawk

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #3 on: June 22, 2020, 01:32:20 AM »
The Ebene recordings have been 'cut' at a rather high level and the peaks are brick-walled.  This all adds to the sense of energy that you mention.

Offline amw

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #4 on: June 22, 2020, 01:36:14 AM »
Yeah I'm not sure about the interpretive war among the various Beethoven cycles, but the Quatuor Ébène easily wins the loudness war.

I'll probably do my own Ébène/Artemis/Auryn/Leipzig/Takács comparison at some point though I suspect the answer would just be that I like all of them.

Offline Jo498

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #5 on: June 22, 2020, 03:44:23 AM »
I listened to all but three of the èbène on the free Netherlands Radio offer, so I cannot comment on the CD sound and neither on opp.130 and 133 because I have yet to listen to them. I also have not compared directly with other recordings.
They make beautiful sounds and are certainly very impressive although I think some movements are a bit over the top. They take some slow movements both slow and very contrastful, e.g. in op.18 #1, similarly in op.59. Some oddities that didn't quite convince me included the "lighter", almost scherzando variations in op.127 and 131 that were too slow and not playful enough. It's as if the seriousness of these grand slow movements depressed their lighter sections to some extent. Also the finale of op.135 I found too heavy and the first movement of op.127 tended too dramatic.
Struck by the sounds before the sun,
I knew the night had gone.
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn.
(Bob Dylan)

Offline JBS

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #6 on: June 22, 2020, 05:14:35 AM »
Yeah I'm not sure about the interpretive war among the various Beethoven cycles, but the Quatuor Ébène easily wins the loudness war.

I'll probably do my own Ébène/Artemis/Auryn/Leipzig/Takács comparison at some point though I suspect the answer would just be that I like all of them.

That's the best approach.

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Online Brian

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #7 on: June 22, 2020, 05:36:53 AM »
I am a little surprised by others' comments on Ébène and may need to do a shootout style listen myself. My first impression of the QE set was positive, but it was also that they really do not have a distinct idiosyncratic style. For example, the Artemis are typically very fast and technically spectacular; the Alexander II are rich and hearty and luxurious like hot chocolate; the Endellion are rough and rustic. With QE and me, summarizing adjectives didn't immediately come to mind.

Obviously I am wrong given that they are inspiring such strong and polarizing reactions from everyone else! And further wrong because I didn't detect anything arch or mannered...or, for that matter, live-sounding. Oops. Time to try again.

Offline hvbias

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #8 on: June 23, 2020, 03:39:42 AM »
I am a little surprised by others' comments on Ébène and may need to do a shootout style listen myself. My first impression of the QE set was positive, but it was also that they really do not have a distinct idiosyncratic style. For example, the Artemis are typically very fast and technically spectacular; the Alexander II are rich and hearty and luxurious like hot chocolate; the Endellion are rough and rustic. With QE and me, summarizing adjectives didn't immediately come to mind.

Obviously I am wrong given that they are inspiring such strong and polarizing reactions from everyone else! And further wrong because I didn't detect anything arch or mannered...or, for that matter, live-sounding. Oops. Time to try again.

I agree with you I don't think they have a signature style, but I think other great cycles like Vegh stereo and Talich don't really have a style either, to me this isn't a bad thing.

I don't find myself in complete disagreement with Herman. I was pretty damn impressed with Ebene when I went through it the first time. I can see how it could be viewed as contrived, but only to a mild extent. To use an analogy I see it like Igor Levit's cycle except I enjoy Ebene far more. I do think they have meticulously thought through each and every detail and this means they can tend to really play up any minor suspense or drama. I suppose I'll have to give Artemis and Auryn a go to see if I like them, at this point I have the feeling I just want to buy another cycle for the sake of it since I haven't bought one in a while (truly exceptional Budapest 1950s mono complete when it came out) besides several individual prewar recordings.

And I agree with the comments on the mastering, this is really shameful to bring pop/rock style mastering to classical. I really hope this was a request of the group or their producers and not some new general trend.
« Last Edit: June 23, 2020, 03:48:37 AM by hvbias »

Offline Herman

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #9 on: June 23, 2020, 09:58:51 PM »
Thanks for all the responses.

The surprise for me was how much I liked the Artemis in comparison. It was not long ago that I had given up on the Artemis, what with all the member changes, so that I did not know whom I was listening to. But on relistenig and checking closely what iteration of the band is playing what I thought they were mostly very vivid and energetic. This is not the same as fast: their interpretations are not especially fast. They are, of course, a modern band in that they sound worlds apart from say the Quartetto Italiano's solemn "Quiet Please. This Is Beethoven!" style, allowing for more agitation and drama.

I also found I love the Artemis's recorded sound, with real instrument ambience. But not soupy.

I had not realized before that one of the problems of the Ebène is the way it's been mixed so high that all the air has been pushed out of it. My guess is this has all been premeditated, including members of the band. Just as every technical-musical detail must have been talked about beforehand, otherwise you run into a ditch in concert. I'm rather intrigued by the (apparent) fact that their Beethoven performances on youtube, at the Festival Wissembourg are pretty much free of this contrivedness that I'm hearing on the Around the World recordings. It's like they (and their Berlin coach, who seems to have travelled with them) decided to make these recordings really stand out.

I would say the Vegh and the Talich definitely have a style, that in the latter case is even clearly regional, Czech.
« Last Edit: June 23, 2020, 10:04:24 PM by Herman »

Offline Mandryka

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #10 on: June 24, 2020, 11:06:36 AM »
Yeah I'm not sure about the interpretive war among the various Beethoven cycles, but the Quatuor Ébène easily wins the loudness war.


Yes, I just listened to op 131 and I can see why you say this.

It made me feel like I’d had too much coffee - uncomfortably tense, wired up. And it made me feel as though I’d been battered with a battering ram, bullied, pushed around by the music - rather than coaxed and sweet talked.

The sound is  studio processed for transparency and in-ya-face -ness, if they sounded like that in concert I’d regret buying that seat on the centre of the front row. There’s no sense of the hall. The string instruments sound pure, I don’t hear horse hair on cat gut, I’m not hearing partials. The sounds mostly aren’t specially coloured, nuanced.   


The fugue is great! There are turbulent moments, dark moments.

In the rest there’s no mystery, everything is too clear. The experience of listening feels like being processed through and efficient machine. It’s all a bit straight, no madness. No vulnerability. This op 131 moves resolutely forward, heroically forward.  It is quite thrilling.

Todd made a comment somewhere in the listening thread about one of their op 18s along the lines that it sounded like a pre echo of late Beethoven. I thought this op 131 sounded like a throwback to heroic middle period Beethoven, especially in the final Allegro.

« Last Edit: June 24, 2020, 11:48:58 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline Herman

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #11 on: June 24, 2020, 10:37:59 PM »

The sound is  studio processed for transparency and in-ya-face -ness, if they sounded like that in concert I’d regret buying that seat on the centre of the front row. There’s no sense of the hall. The string instruments sound pure, I don’t hear horse hair on cat gut, I’m not hearing partials. The sounds mostly aren’t specially coloured, nuanced.   

yes. the materiality has been removed: you don't hear wood, horsehair, string sounds resonating above the instruments.


Quote
The fugue is great! There are turbulent moments, dark moments.

In the rest there’s no mystery, everything is too clear. The experience of listening feels like being processed through and efficient machine. It’s all a bit straight, no madness. No vulnerability. This op 131 moves resolutely forward, heroically forward.  It is quite thrilling.

I liked the fugue, too. (You have to keep in mind the music is not too bad, no matter what.) As I said, later on I got too much the feeling they wanted to surprise me by underlining 'interesting' details, such as the manipulations of the cello pizzicati at the beginning of the variations. Obviously in performance everything is manipulation, there is no such thing as "just letting the music speak". However one can give the listener the illusion that you're just "letting the music speak", and that's not what they're doing.

Together with the way it's mastered it makes for a rather exhausting, non-rewarding listening experience.

I read some silly consumerist-hype phrases like "set of the century" here (reminder: it's 2020), and the funny thing is I find fault with almost every aspect of these recordings, both musically and technically. I don't understand why we as listeners at home or (hopefully) in the concert hall should speak the language of marketeers. It's bad enough as it is.
« Last Edit: June 24, 2020, 11:17:36 PM by Herman »

Offline aukhawk

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #12 on: June 24, 2020, 11:31:30 PM »
I read some silly consumerist-hype phrases like "set of the century" here (reminder: it's 2020), and the funny thing is I find fault with almost every aspect of these recordings, both musically and technically. I don't understand why we as listeners at home or (hopefully) in the concert hall should speak the language of marketeers. It's bad enough as it is.

I expect there was an element of parody in that remark.  And we have to bear in mind that this is the 'Great Recordings and Reviews' board - that rather pre-supposes that the recordings discussed will come in for a fair amount of approval.  I've always struggled with the late quartets (via Belcea, Casals, Berg, Kodaly) and the Ebene recordings of these works has been a real eye-opener for me - in a very good way - I've re-listened to Nos 14 and 15 a few times already, prior to this they were a once-in-5-years sort of thing.

Offline Herman

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #13 on: June 25, 2020, 01:20:56 AM »
Well, that's good.

Hopefully I'm always making clear that how I feel about this music is how I feel about it, and everyone's mileage may vary.

It takes all kinds. If the Ebène opens up these works for you that's wonderful. I mean, way back I started with the La Salle recordings, that I now find professorial to such a degree that I'm picturing these players performing with pipes in their mouths.

The op 131 nr 14 quartet is such a hard piece, in the Mozartian way: the opening fugue is a little hard because of the funny key, but otherwise it's just notes even I can play, at a comfortably leisurely pace. But making it into a coherent powerful statement of yeah, what? bleakness? is very hard to pull off, especially on record, when you're not part of the performance as an audience member.

Offline hvbias

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #14 on: June 25, 2020, 09:38:45 AM »
I gave Op. 131 a listen on the ESL57s, to me this is what it sounds like happened - after the recording the files were all increased in level past 0 db causing digital clipping, then the levels were slightly reduced. I don't think there is a problem with the mix or recording as evidenced by the degree of separation you can hear, it's just that form of digital limitation has choked out the music giving it an "in your face" type and removing some of the cues that Mandryka mentioned.

From a performance point of view it's the late quartets I find them least successful in. The Harp Quartet is pretty good (the high dynamic nature of that piece suits their style) and same with most of the Op. 18 works.

Offline Mandryka

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #15 on: June 25, 2020, 10:40:14 AM »
Yes I’d listened to one of the op 59s a few months ago, a prerelease, and thought much more highly of it than I did of the op 131 last night. And I don’t recall having any reservations about the sound.  Nothing follows of course, I’m very inconsistant and changeable about this sort of thing.
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Offline aukhawk

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #16 on: June 25, 2020, 12:49:13 PM »
I gave Op. 131 a listen on the ESL57s, to me this is what it sounds like happened - after the recording the files were all increased in level past 0 db causing digital clipping, then the levels were slightly reduced. I don't think there is a problem with the mix or recording as evidenced by the degree of separation you can hear, it's just that form of digital limitation has choked out the music giving it an "in your face" type and removing some of the cues that Mandryka mentioned.

I agree there's nothing wrong with the recording - it's close, but presumably the aim was to get a consistent sound from the various venues, and to that extent the closeness worked.  (Although in that case why make a big thing of the world tour in the first place.  You'd expect different venues to sound different.)

I think it's brick-wall limiting rather than digital clipping - superficially there's not much difference but one implies control whereas the other implies carelessness.  And it's only very mild - negligible compared with typical popular music practise.  As far as it goes, the processing works for me (writing as a retired audio engineer).

Offline Mandryka

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #17 on: June 25, 2020, 06:46:59 PM »

I think it's brick-wall limiting rather than digital clipping -

Why do this?
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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #18 on: June 25, 2020, 10:16:21 PM »
For the same reason that it's near-standard practice throughout the music recording and broadcasting industry - to make the music louder. 
It started back in the day when competing radio music stations realised that they couldd increase their 'market share' simply by sounding louder than the competition.  For immutable engineering-led reasons, they could not simply turn the wick up ad infinitum - but by compressing and ultimately limiting the sound the loudness effect is achieved - obviously at the expense of some fidelity, but the best recordings do use some peak compression because the true peaks are such a tiny percentage of the audio as a whole, the compromise is a good one to make.  98% or more of the audio is left completely untouched - but louder.  In the days of analogue tape recording compression was just a natural property of the tape medium, so we're all used to it.

If we were to blind-compare five very good recordings of string quartets, on initial reaction the loudest-sounding one would grab the attention the most.  Yes of course as discerning listeners of taste we would very soon be questioning our own initial reaction and would probably end up preferring one of the others - but it's that initial hit that's important.

Offline Herman

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Re: LvB string quartet shoot out Ebene / Artemis / Petersen
« Reply #19 on: June 25, 2020, 11:19:58 PM »
I'd say in classical string quartet the dynamics aren't nearly as wide as in Mahler 3.

Beethoven interpretation post-Harnoncourt has put more emphasis on the sforzandi etc, but still it's just four fiddles.

Except of course when your starting point at pp is already enough to fill the room.

In my lifetime pearticularly orchestras have become louder and louder. I remember the Concertgebouw under Chailly reaching painful levels of noise in Ravel's Barque.