Notes and Editorial Reviews
There’s a long tradition of transcribing/arranging string quartets for string orchestra–not only numerous Beethoven settings (including Mahler’s of the Op. 95 F minor and the Bernstein/Mitropoulos Op. 131 and 135) but also the famous Barshai version of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 and Barber’s own rendition of the Adagio from his Op. 11 quartet. Here Camerata Nordica’s Terje Tønnesen offers his own take on Beethoven’s late quartets, in which he judiciously “fiddles” with texture, striving to “strengthen the contrast between the powerful parts and those filled with intimacy”; he achieves this by having the “intimate” sections played by soloists against the larger orchestra–”like in a concerto grosso”. In other words, these are not
just more or less straight transcriptions with double-basses thrown in here and there.
If there’s anything revelatory here, it’s how these quartet scores virtually bloom and boom under the influence of the expanded forces, especially the slow movements, where these works’ symphonic character can be most readily and thoroughly exploited. Naturally the Op. 130 Cavatina and Molto adagio of Op. 132 are the highlights in this regard, and the ensemble playing here is particularly impressive.
But speaking of impressive, from a standpoint of pure technique and virtuosity, Camerata Nordica is in a class by itself in the way these players so perfectly negotiate the very intricate, most fiercely quick and complex sections of the fast movements: how do they play so precisely together, and with such finesse and expressive nuance? This is the real challenge of playing these quartets with a larger ensemble–and the reason you might justifiably think it couldn’t work. Beethoven’s music is demanding enough for one player on a part; this is not music for the faint-hearted, nor for group participation. But these musicians are not faint-hearted: they rip through the most dizzying, daunting passages Beethoven ever wrote with captivating spirit and technique to spare.
No, these are not string quartet performances; but they are Beethoven, totally and truly, faithfully and respectfully realized. Tønnesen even submits the Op. 130 in its original form, with its “very long and complex fugal finale”–what later became known in its separate incarnation as the “Große Fugue” Op. 133. Some commentators have expressed uncertainty or skepticism regarding the effectiveness or even advisability of performing Beethoven’s monumental quartets with string orchestra. But Beethoven’s music always seems bigger than its existing form, restlessly, relentlessly pushing the edges–and Tønnesen and his players more than rise to Beethoven’s challenge. These performances were previously released by Altara Music, and now are reissued–and remastered–by BIS. Don’t miss them, especially if you’re a fan of the quartets, whose musical and structural dimensions prove perfectly suited to the plus-size sonic and expressive possibilities offered by an eager and willing, virtuoso orchestra.
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