Notes and Editorial Reviews
Beethoven: String Quartets No 1 & 4 / Quatuor Mosaïques
These Naïve CDs present a wondrous union of “old” and “new” (old music/old instruments combined with new insights in stunning contemporary sound). - FANFARE
R E V I E W S:
Fanfare Magazine - reviewing NAÏVE E 8899 & NAÏVE E 8901
Beethoven readings, on period instruments by Quatuor Mosaïques, strike me as passionate, intelligent, and supremely musical. What we have here is like some wonderful old wines packaged in attractive new bottles. Comprised of musicians who met while playing in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien, this quartet was formed in 1989. Despite the French-sounding name, three of its members are Austrian (violinists Erich Höbart and Andrea Bischof, plus violist Anita Mitterer) and one is French. The latter is cellist Christophe Coin, who offers an explanation of the ensemble’s name in the liner notes: “In a mosaic, each detail appears splendidly conceived. But it is the overall picture that one takes in at a single glance. The same is true of music: one must work on the details, do organological and musicological research, think about articulation, phrasing, dynamics . . . in sum, create the best possible conditions for listening, just as the eye is capable of finding the ideal distance for viewing a picture.”
Naïve’s recorded sound achieves precisely that: it’s close but not over-bearing (the players’ breathing is virtually inaudible), and the recording site has a near-perfect resonance without undue reverberation. The disc containing Quartets 5 and 6 was recorded in 1994 (originally issued on an Astrée CD), while the disc with Quartets 1 and 4 was made in 2004. Both discs were recorded in the warm ambience of Austria’s Grafenegg Schloss Alte Reitschule. Of the dozen or so complete sets of Beethoven’s op. 18 that remain on my shelves, my long-time favorite is the 1970s version by the Végh Quartet (currently in a box set of the complete Beethoven string quartets on this same Naïve CD label). Among individual quartet recordings, I treasure the 1927/28 Capet String Quartet in No. 5 (Biddulph), the 1933 Busch String Quartet in No. 1 (EMI), the 1941–45 Budapest String Quartet readings of Nos. 1, 4, and 6 (Sony Masterworks Heritage), a rare early 1950s LP with the Paganini Quartet in Nos. 1 and 2 (RCA LM 1729), and a 1950s Westminster LP of No.4 with an ad hoc ensemble led by violinist Erica Morini. Unfortunately, those last two discs verify what I facetiously call Lipscomb’s First Law of Record Collecting: the desirability of a recording is inversely proportional to its current availability.
It was only after listening through these CDs under review that I got around to reading their liner notes. There I discovered that the members of Quatuor Mosaïques “have always sought to ensure that a living link to the great European quartet tradition remains perceptible in their work. Hence an essential inspiration for the group was the legendary Végh Quartet, of which Erich Höbart (QM’s first violin) was a member for three years. The ultimate aim of each interpretation must be to reveal the inner spiritual wealth of the music.” There is indeed much in common here with the Végh readings. The playing is relaxed yet probing, there are a few unusual accents that sound merely individual rather than eccentric (e.g., an occasional tendency to swell on unison sforzandos), and the tempos are moderate but never fail to sustain tension. QM’s intonation is superior to the Végh’s, and their unanimity of phrasing is equally telepathic. There is also a genial warmth to QM’s playing that reminds me of the old Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet, but QM is more assertive, avoids that ensemble’s not infrequent stodginess, and eschews the VKQ’s portamento in favor of just a subtle, discreetly applied vibrato. It’s worth noting that the VKQ recorded several Beethoven quartets, but none from op. 18. Instead, Westminster assigned those LP duties to the rougher sounding, somewhat first violin-dominated Barylli Quartet.
What makes these efforts by Quatuor Mosaïques so uniquely compelling is the gorgeous sound of its gut-strung historic fiddles (and this is from a listener who generally avoids so-called “original instrument” ensembles like the plague). Whether solo or in unison, these instruments have a pungent sweetness and bloom that’s nearly hypnotic...
While Beethoven’s virtuosic op. 18 quartets look back to Haydn (notably the latter’s op. 76 quartets), the Quatuor Mosaïques’s readings of the slow movements reveal a depth and profundity of expression quite beyond any of Haydn’s chamber music. On the other hand, their richly inflected interpretation of No. 5’s Andante cantabile con variazoni shows a clear link to the corresponding movement in Beethoven’s late, great op. 131 quartet. Once again, this makes me wonder if the gulf between “early” and “late” Beethoven is really quite so wide as many writers would have us believe.
I hope that Quatuor Mosaïques plans to record op. 18, Nos. 2 and 3. If it does, and the results turn out as well as these superb current discs, that complete op. 18 would become my preferred version, thereby reducing the Végh to honorable second fiddle. These Naïve CDs present a wondrous union of “old” and “new” (old music/old instruments combined with new insights in stunning contemporary sound). Perhaps it’s foolhardy, but I’m hoping to hear even more of such eloquent Beethoven from Quatuor Mosaïques. Urgently recommended.
Jeffrey J. Lipscomb, FANFARE
Continuing along the path set by its very good recording of Beethoven's Op. 18 Nos. 1 and 4, Quatuor Mosaïques offers even finer renditions of the last two in the set. Most immediately striking is the ensemble's richly sonorous, full-bodied sound--quite impressive considering the use of period instruments. The Mosaïques' approach to the music is equally robust, with strongly girded tempos and naturally-breathed phrasing. As before, the readings have an 18th-century feel yet paradoxically look beyond the music's era. Listen to the spare yet expansive treatment of No. 5's long variation movement--you'll almost believe you're listening to one of Beethoven's late quartets (this wouldn't be the only time he returned to his early work during his latter days). No. 6 is just as splendid, the slow movement again beautifully elevated, though the outer movements steal the show with their unquenchable vitality. Naïve's vivid, vibrant recording (from 1995) defines the term "high fidelity". The Prazak Quartet remains essential for modern-instrument renditions of this music, but the Quatuor Mosaïques provides a strongly engaging alternative view. --Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5: I. Allegro
String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5: II. Menuetto
String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5: III. Andante cantabile
String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5: IV. Allegro
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: I. Allegro con brio
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: II. Adagio ma non troppo
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: III. Scherzo: Allegro
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: IV. La Malinconia: Adagio - Allegretto quasi allegro
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