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Beethoven: Six String Quartets Op 18 / Miró Quartet

Release Date: 08/23/2005 
Label:  Vanguard   Catalog #: 1655   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sandy YamamotoDaniel ChingJohn LargessJoshua Gindele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN String Quartets, op. 18 ? Miró Qrt ? VANGUARD 1655 (2 CDs: 151:31)

The Miró Quartet is comprised of four young, very handsome American players who, as a group, are relatively new to the chamber music circuit. They have already won a number of important awards and string quartet competitions, and have been in residence at Lincoln Center and the University of Texas, Austin. The namesake of the group, I?m just guessing, is the famous Catalan artist, Joan Read more Miró (1893?1983), which, if true, is an odd choice for an ensemble whose playing hardly strikes me as cubist, Fauvist, or surrealist. These are recently recorded releases, taped at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York during the month of October 2004.

Beethoven composed his six op. 18 string quartets between 1798 and 1800, though not necessarily in the same order they have come to be numbered. There is some evidence suggesting that the No. 4, the only minor-key work in the group, may have been one of the earliest to be written, an interesting speculation in light of the fact that so much of it seems to pre-echo the composer?s somewhat later angst-ridden Sturm und Drang manner. Likewise, the No. 6 is also probably one of the older siblings. The language it speaks is closer to Haydn than that of the others, and even the extraordinary ?La malinconia? introduction to the last movement and its subsequent return is not unprecedented; Mozart got there first with the last movement of his G-Minor String Quintet, K 516 (1787). More advanced and premonitory of things to come are the F-Major Quartet (No. 1) with its bold, dramatic, and fully Romantic second movement, and the variations movement of the A-Major Quartet (No. 5) which explores sonorities that seem to want to break loose from the constraints of the very medium from which they spring.

In truth, each of these quartets, regardless of its birth order, plants its own seeds of revolution. In fact, a reference volume I have, Chamber Music , by Rangel-Ribeiro and Markel, is simply divided into two sections: ?Composers to the Time of Haydn and Mozart,? and ?Composers from Beethoven to Our Own Time,? as if Beethoven represents a break in the musical strata similar to the major dividing lines in geological time. There is music before Beethoven, and then there is Beethoven.

These readings by the Miró Quartet are very well played by every technical standard used to measure such things: intonation is perfect, ensemble balance and blend are beautifully modulated, tone production is full and robust yet cleanly drawn and sharply etched. Less easily quantified, however, are matters of interpretation. There were individual moments and even entire movements where I found myself quite taken with the Miró?s approach. For example, I especially like the way in which the Adagio movement of the Sixth Quartet unfolds at a pace that allows the intimate conversation time to breathe out its little asides and sighs. Also superb is the Scherzo of this same quartet, in which the silliness of the squabble is especially brought to the fore. The sudden wrenching change of key is an uncanny premonition of the parallel movement in Beethoven?s very last quartet, op. 135. After a bit of an adjustment, I also ended up liking the Miró?s rather faster than usual tempo for the scherzo-like second movement of the Fourth Quartet. It forces one to acknowledge that Beethoven has written a four-movement sonata-allegro based work without a formal slow movement, and it throws into even greater relief the third movement, which is wound up so tight that the designation ?Menuetto? itself becomes the joke.

To be fair and balanced, however, I must say that there are certain interpretive points not entirely to my liking. One of them is the first movement of the Fourth Quartet, which comes across sounding a bit laid-back and under-energized. This is one of those Beethoven movements that should grab you where you live and not let go. Here it sounds just a bit too laissez-faire . My single biggest disappointment, though, was the aforementioned variations movement of the Fifth Quartet. The penultimate variation, with its shimmering interlocking alternating thirds anticipates future sound worlds of Dvo?ák and Brahms. And the final variation will not be contained; it literally wants to explode from the bellies of instruments. It is here I feel that the Mirós are too slow and restrained. They sound hesitant and inhibited at the very moment they need to shout, to burst forth, to let loose with everything they have.

There is much good to recommend this set. Repeats are taken, and recorded sound is excellent. For the most part, I enjoyed these recordings, and shall definitely be keeping them and returning to them in the future. They will not, however, replace my top choice among recent releases. For that, I stand by the Takács Quartet reviewed in 28:5.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in F major, Op. 18 no 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sandy Yamamoto (Violin), Daniel Ching (Violin), John Largess (Viola),
Joshua Gindele (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1798/1800; Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 18 no 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Joshua Gindele (Cello), Daniel Ching (Violin), John Largess (Viola),
Sandy Yamamoto (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
Quartet for Strings no 3 in D major, Op. 18 no 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Joshua Gindele (Cello), John Largess (Viola), Daniel Ching (Violin),
Sandy Yamamoto (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
Quartet for Strings no 4 in C minor, Op. 18 no 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sandy Yamamoto (Violin), John Largess (Viola), Joshua Gindele (Cello),
Daniel Ching (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
Quartet for Strings no 5 in A major, Op. 18 no 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Daniel Ching (Violin), Sandy Yamamoto (Violin), John Largess (Viola),
Joshua Gindele (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1798/1800 
Quartet for Strings no 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 no 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Joshua Gindele (Cello), Sandy Yamamoto (Violin), Daniel Ching (Violin),
John Largess (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Miró String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 

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