Notes and Editorial Reviews
What to say of yet another youngish quartet ensemble, this one of German pedigree, vying for pride of place with a one-off of two Beethoven quartets on a super-budget label alongside the most recent top contenders? Plenty, that’s what. In a 29:5 review of an Artemis Quartet Beethoven release, I stuck my neck out by saying “even the very best of the best among late 20th-century string quartet ensembles – the Emerson, Cleveland, Takács – are beginning to be eclipsed by the likes of the Quatuor Sine Nomine, Pacifica, and Artemis Quartets.”
Further evidence of this may be heard on the present disc. We are beyond any need to discuss matters of technical mastery. The dialectic of Beethoven’s string-quartet-writing – not just
the musical vocabulary and manner of speech, but the logic that informs it and the thinking that underlies it – has now been so thoroughly absorbed and integrated into modern string-quartet-playing culture that it has become instinctive. The music no longer needs figuring out. Instead, the players seem to “speak” Beethoven’s transcendent language as naturally as you and I engage in everyday conversation. For all art once thought to be difficult, challenging, even incomprehensible, there comes a point where it is no longer so, and where it is either assimilated by the larger culture as part of its vernacular, or it is rejected as not contributory to the furtherance of the culture’s evolution.
Certainly these quartets have been played without interruption from Beethoven’s own lifetime onward, and with the advent of recording, a historical legacy of performance practices has come down to us. Yet only in the last few years have new readings of the quartets come to sound this effortless and intuitively right, as if the music no longer holds any technical or cognitive challenges, freeing the players to speculate in the purely spiritual realm. That is what I sense listening to the Henschels play these works.
In the B-flat Major Quartet, the last numbered of Beethoven’s “early” set, there is such bounce and playfulness in the Haydnesque first movement that one is quite overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of the Adagio variations that follow it. Truth be told, I often find my attention wandering in this early attempt at a slow movement in variations form – something that would later become a Beethoven specialty – but the Henschels find such poignancy in it I could not help but be deeply moved.
Not completed until 1825, the E-flat Major Quartet stands as the first numbered of the “late” quartets, and is generally regarded as the most “normal” or “regular” of the lot. If one takes the number of movements and their order as the measure of normalcy, then on the macro level that is probably true. But there is something quite out of the ordinary about an Adagio that dwarfs the other movements, and is almost nearly as long as the rest of them put together. Also, as noted in 28:5, we now see a micro-fractionalization of the beat and an unprecedented independence of the voices. Pizzicato, which came to play such an important role in the “middle” quartets, is now joined by trills – trills everywhere, as far as the eye can see, and in some of the most unusual and unexpected places.
The chronological gestation of the “late” quartets is not as puzzling as is an aspect of their content. Just as the three “Razumovsky” quartets were written to fulfill a commission, so too were the ops. 127, 132, and 130. All were completed in 1825, in that order, in fulfillment of a commission from another Russian nobleman, Prince Nikolaus Galitsin. The oddity here is that op. 131, completed the following year (as was op. 135), was not part of the commission (in fact it was not part of any commission), yet it, and not op. 127, forms a trilogy with ops. 130 and 132 based on shared motives and thematic material. The most likely explanation is that Beethoven was working on all five of these quartets at the same time, and the three he presented to Galitsin just happened to be the first three he finished. The fact that op. 127 does not belong to the ops. 130 and 132 trilogy, whereas op. 131 does, was probably quite irrelevant to Beethoven. Galitsin had requested three quartets, and here were three newly completed quartets. Give them to him, and call it job done.
The Henschels’ playing of the first movement is positively radiant, brimming with joyful song. The Adagio’s 16 minutes hardly seem a heartbeat in a reading that finds as much humor in the movement’s offbeat central section as it illuminates a spellbinding dreamscape in the outer sections. Vacillating between the goofy and the gallows, the Scherzo is a movement that could as easily be a musical joke in black crepe as it could one of Beethoven’s lemmings-rushing-towards-the-cliff death marches. The Henschels hear more lemming than ludicrous in the piece. The last movement returns to the joyousness of the first movement, only now more rambunctious and raucous.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I was quite bowled over by these young players. In fact, I will be terribly disappointed if they do not eventually give us a complete survey of the Beethoven quartets.
A word also (or a plug) for Arte Nova, which is part of the Sony/BMG family: until recently, only a select number of CDs from their quite extensive catalog was being distributed in the US. That has changed, and it appears that their full catalog is, or soon will be, available. I mention this – in case anyone is interested – because one of the finest currently on-going series I know of the complete Mozart piano concertos is underway for the label with Matthias Kirschnereit and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. So far, I’ve managed to collect nine volumes, though if you visit a well-known mail-order Web site, you would think there is only one volume available. For a full listing, check out the company’s own Web site: www.artenova.de.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 no 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Henschel String Quartet
Quartet for Strings no 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Henschel String Quartet
Written: 1823-1825; Vienna, Austria
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