Author Topic: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák  (Read 2372 times)

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Offline hvbias

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #20 on: December 10, 2020, 02:20:10 PM »
Todd have you made a list of rankings of the string quartet cycles?

Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #21 on: December 10, 2020, 03:42:30 PM »
Todd have you made a list of rankings of the string quartet cycles?


No, I don't have enough to do so at this point.  I don't even have 30 complete cycles yet.
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Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #22 on: December 11, 2020, 05:41:14 AM »
Op 95:

Pražák - The quartet tears into the opening of the Allegro con brio as they should, but the entire first movement undulates wonderfully between vibrant and relaxed.  The perfectly timed pauses, and subtle violin playing, the viola basically anchoring the music in the coda, it all works superbly.  The outer sections of the Allegretto sound beautiful and searching yet stay within the bounds of the surrounding, higher energy music perfectly.  The serioso movement adds urgency and drama without tipping into histrionics, and it gives way to a Larghetto that pushes the bounds on late LvB and an Allegretto agitato with more drama.  They alternate both until the fun Allegro closer.

Ébène - The Ébène likewise tears into the opening, but the almost claustrophobic sound both puts the music in the listener's face but blunts the music's impact.  The ensemble's ability to back off and play more gently and subtly is not in question, but it seems less pronounced, though individual instrumental detail sounds more pronounced.  The extremely high energy opener segues to a predictably lovely Allegretto ma non troppo, with the outer sections languid and sweet, and the fugal writing a bit darker.  The serioso movement is dispatched with energy and weight, but the playing sounds so nimble and responsive that it glides along in the Scherzo sections, while again sounding almost sweet in the trios.  The Larghetto espressivo starts the last movement off in sufficiently dramatic fashion, but in the Allegretto agitato, as the material moves through the themes, at times sounding dramatic and humorous, the playing really delivers, and the concluding Allegro ends on an upbeat, super-virtuosic high note.


Winner: Ébène
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Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #23 on: December 12, 2020, 05:54:24 AM »
Op 127:

Pražák - The Czechs launch with a potent, assertive, quasi-orchestral Maestoso opening, which segues to a robust Allegro that sounds more middle than late period, but as the movement progresses toward the coda, the style and playing slowly, almost imperceptibly shifts to a full-on late sound, which then goes appropriately further in the opening theme of the slow movement and first variation.  The second variation, while more joyful, remains elevated, and the rest of the variations remain in the transcendent realm.  The use of vibrato at times is pronounced, but always appropriate, and the sotte voce playing in the fifth variation witnesses the ensemble shift styles fluidly but almost imperceptibly to something serenely beautiful.  In the Scherzo, the ensemble play with more drive and energy, shaking off the depth of the prior movements, but they play with a lightness and buoyancy in some passages that shows brief glimpses of something more elevated, while the faster playing has that perfect corporate execution.  The quartet closes out in robust fashion, with satisfyingly hefty fortissimo playing, but it's never just robust to sound robust, and the immediate and dramatic shifts in tone and volume sound exquisite.

Ébène - The Ébène start off less boldly, and take the opening movement a bit slower, going for a late period sound from the outset, and while lovely and effective, it does mean that as the movement progresses that there's less, well, progress.  It sounds different shades of transcendent, and the relative dynamic range sounds more compressed, limiting impact.  In the slow movement, the ensemble does it's slow movement thing, slowing down, going profound from note one, and creating a sound that mixes four distinct voices most effectively.  Here, the second variation stands out even more as a lighter interlude in comparison to all the surrounding music.  The Scherzo sounds peppier, and the playing lacks rough edges, smoothed down to a lovely, fluid, flowing musical interlude.  In the Allegro, the Ébène again goes for a somewhat slow and restrained approach, with smoothed edges, and the overall effect sounds beautiful, but not as compelling as the Czechs.


Winner: Pražák
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Everything dies - Alien Bounty Hunter, The X-Files

Everyone dies - William Barr, United States Attorney General

Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #24 on: December 13, 2020, 06:12:03 AM »
Op 130:

Pražák - In the opening movement, the Pražák opt for a high contrast style, with a slow, tense, and late-LvB transcendent Adagio alternating with a fast, intense, nearly fierce Allegro, with the players digging in, playing with real edge.  What makes this approach work especially well is the masterful transitions.  The more robust than one might expect rhythmic vitality also pays off big.  The Presto revs up the fast playing even more, with the violins sternly frolicking in the outer sections.  The ensemble keeps up a taut approach in the Poco Scherzo where they clearly opt to treat the movement as a rarified musical joke as opposed to music plumbing the depths.  The bopping cello playing, if nothing else, makes that clear.  In the Alla danza tedesca, the playing stays tense and superficially joke-y, though one hears something brewing just below the surface.  And of course that comes to the surface in the Cavatina, which starts off tense and vibrato-laden, but beautiful, and rather obviously elevated.  As it progresses, the feeling of terse anguish takes over, but never overwhelms.  Though I vastly prefer the revised ending, I went for the Grosse Fuge to allow a true A/B with the Ébène.  As it happens, the Pražák's style in the work and overall renders one of the most effective takes on the piece.  Mostly fierce, slashing, and almost violent in approach through much of the music, they actually make sense of the counterpoint, and when they back off it cools down a bit, and offers glimpses of late LvB serenity in the midst of musical madness.  Superb.

Ébène - The Ébène opt for something less tense and assertive.  Sure, the Allegro playing has tension and drive, just not as much, and the Adagio sections exude oodles of late Beethoven transcendence.  It's a darker, more elevated style and sound.  The ensemble zoom through the Presto swiftly, but it lacks the contrast of the Czechs.  Come the Poco scherzoso, the more relaxed approach of the Ébène pays more dividends.  It's more elevated and beautiful and softer, more tuneful sounding, and gentler.  The playing is at least as accomplished, just for more refined ends.  The Alla danza tedesca sounds more lilting and beautiful, and gives way to a Cavatina that starts off fully transcendent and never deviates.  Searching, introspective, anguished it serves as the heart of the work here, and it matches - well, nearly - what comes in later quartets.  The up close recording renders the Grosse Fuge hyper-detailed and oversized sounding, with a sort of weight and momentum in the fast playing.  It lacks the intensity and drive of the Pražák, but the overall impact still satisfies immensely, and in a different way. 


Winner: Ébène
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Everything dies - Alien Bounty Hunter, The X-Files

Everyone dies - William Barr, United States Attorney General

Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #25 on: December 14, 2020, 06:16:08 AM »
Op 131:

Pražák - In the opening Adagio, the Pražák again keeps things a bit tense, but here they also go for full-on transcendent music making.  Here's a fugue at least the equal of anything from Bach, and more musically compelling than Op 133.  The players deliver clarity and depth without excess, and they move into the wonderfully contrasted Allegro molto vivace, delivering ethereal lightness, with the fades to silence well nigh perfect.  The tiny, taut third movement serves as perfect bridge to the great middle movement.  Again, the Pražák keeps things a bit taut as they move through the theme and variations, but here they reach the highest heights throughout, which then breaks off to the energetic Presto, which though displaying fine dynamics and drive, sounds perfectly controlled rather than extremely dramatic.  The short Adagio possesses more of that late Beethoven slow music soundworld while the concluding Allegro launches with fast, stark, slashing playing, which then moves to a serene return of the opening movement.  The movement alternates between the styles masterfully.

Ébène - Once again, the Ébène play in a more relaxed manner, and once again the effect sounds more immediately, if somewhat superficially, transcendent.  The tonal beauty and languid precision of the fugal playing does render something exquisitely beautiful, and as the movement continues, the playing takes on a more somber, subdued feel.  The fade to silence coda then transitions slowly, gently, like a musical sunrise into the very relaxed Allegro molto vivace which never sounds energetic, seems more like an Andante, and has very narrow dynamic range.  Yet, it sounds incredibly beautiful.  The diminutive, smooth third movement transitions to the theme and variations that starts off almost too beautiful and never really deviates from the approach.  Everything sounds gentle and elevated, and very intimate, a byproduct of the close recording, though it seems like the quartet never ventures above mezzo forte, and here they reveal one of the most intoxicating uses of vibrato around.  Nice.  The Ébène dispatch the Presto with nimbleness and gossamer transcendence, in one of the neatest tricks in their set.  The brief Adagio continues on with the slow, serene, elevated beauty of the other slow playing, and then in the Allegro the ensemble play with a heavy deliberateness that generates some urgency to start, and then return to the opening musical material, though here it sounds even more rarified.  They then alternate masterfully, delivering a crackerjack reading.


Winner: Ébène
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Everything dies - Alien Bounty Hunter, The X-Files

Everyone dies - William Barr, United States Attorney General

Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #26 on: December 15, 2020, 05:07:29 AM »
Op 132:

Pražák - Finally, a shoot-out in the greatest musical composition in all of human history.  The Pražák open slowly, searchingly, then move on to faster, more searching playing, and while they keep a tense musical feel, there's less of a sense of that.  Too, while still displaying supremely fine corporate execution, the individual instruments and their musical lines become more distinct.  The playing also displays a sort of detached sensibility, by which I mean it seems to sort of, well, just float, or emerge from nowhere.  The Allegro ma non tanto, with its elevated beauty and sort of surreal dance-like rhythm, keeps up the detached feel on the way to the greatest single movement ever written, the great Molto Adagio.  The Pražák deliver serene and moving hymn like playing right from the outset.  The second theme comes off as purely joyful, almost delicately rapturous in its first appearance, with the ensemble playing with a heretofore uncharacteristic lightness.  The second appearance of the chorale freezes time, and each phrase, each note becomes a celebration of merest existence and consciousness.  The final appearance of the chorale finds the first violinist offering the most beautiful, searching, intense yet tender, song of praise.  Yep.  The Alla marcia displays a sense of fin a celebration, yet doesn't go too far in that direction, and then in the Allegro appassionato the Czechs deliver more power, urgency, and celebratory weight, though even here they do not push like in some earlier quartets.  Top notch stuff.

Ébène - The Ébène's penchant for a darker sound and more ethereal slow playing mean that they are particularly well-suited to this piece.  In the opening movement, while not faster, they end up playing with wider stylistic contrasts and greater overall forcefulness, in a musical switch-up.  It works well.  In the Allegro ma non tanto, the Frenchmen and woman again play with a bit more vitality, and also a more refined, smoother overall sound, with the dynamic gradations apparently wider, though here's it's more of the smaller gradations and due to recording technique.  In the great slow movement, the Ébène take four minutes longer than the Pražák, which translates into a more solemn, searching feel in the hymn sections, with the beauty and power of the chorale being turned up to eleven.  To an extent, it sounds contrived in comparison, but what contrivance!  And the close recording magnifies the effect, when, say, the cello or viola whispers out the merest hints of pianissimo playing.  Through speakers, the effect compels, through cans it haunts.  The ensemble then delivers a strongly characterized Alla marcia with ample oomph and close-miked violin playing, and then they close out with a vibrant yet elegant Allegro appassionato.  Overall, the playing and style blend together most magnificently.


Winner: Ébène
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Everything dies - Alien Bounty Hunter, The X-Files

Everyone dies - William Barr, United States Attorney General

Offline Todd

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #27 on: December 16, 2020, 06:04:28 AM »
Op 135:

Pražák - The Pražák start off the Allegretto with a light enough - but not too light - feel, freed from the constraints of heavy duty late LvB.  Rhythmically vital, with fine dynamic gradation, and a sort of scampering sound, it sounds swell.  The Vivace expands on, and amplifies, the traits of the first movement in compressed fashion, with the quartet again displaying supremely fine corporate dynamic control.  In the Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, the artists hold nothing back in terms of expression, which yields a slow movement second only to that of Op 132.  They cap things off with a final movement where the question "Muss es sein" is posed in dramatic, imploring fashion, and then answered in vigorous, positive, reassuring fashion, with the cello positively dancing and serving as an underpinning for the other three instruments each taking their turns answering the question, singly and in concert, to the affirmative. 

Ébène - The Ébène bring more dramatic flair to their reading, offering a slightly romanticized take, which, while still fairly light, renders the music a bit weightier whenever it slows down.  The sound lacks the ultimate rhythmic vitality of the Czechs, but it's none too shabby.  The Vivace has plenty of pep, and a goodly amount of legato playing in some sections which smoothes the sound out a bit too much, though the more boisterous playing lacks that trait.  The Lento once again benefits from the Ébène's style and sounds disarmingly beautiful, though, somehow, it lacks the gravity of the Pražák's take, by the tiniest of subjective amounts.  Finally, somewhat against type, the quartet offers a less dramatic opening to the final movement, though it still sounds dramatic.  The response to the question is affirmative and buoyant and forceful, and while each of the players does their thing, it lacks the same type of coordinated individual effect.  Still, make no mistake, this is some grade A stuff.


Winner: Pražák


The shootout is done.  I was fully prepared to melt down the loser.  I cannot.  In terms of raw count, the Pražák win.  But with their relatively outsize success in the late quartets, the Ébène earn a permanent and special place in my collection.  So I guess I win. 

I can always go buy a copy of one of the Lindsay Quartet's cycles and melt that down. 
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Everything dies - Alien Bounty Hunter, The X-Files

Everyone dies - William Barr, United States Attorney General

Online Mandryka

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #28 on: January 24, 2021, 09:40:24 AM »

I now have recordings of Ebène doing all the quartets which have a much more natural sound, and it makes a world of difference. I can share them privately.
« Last Edit: January 24, 2021, 09:43:15 AM by Mandryka »
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DavidW

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Re: Beethoven String Quartet Thunderdome: Ébène vs. Pražák
« Reply #29 on: January 24, 2021, 11:40:11 AM »
Those are two of my favorite string quartets.  I listen to anything either ensemble have recorded.  They have so much personality.