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Beethoven: Piano Quartet, String Quintet / Nash Ensemble

Release Date: 06/09/2009 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67745   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN String Quintet in c. Viola and Cello Duet in E?. Piano Quartet in E? Nash Ens HYPERION 67745 (70: 03)

This is a follow-on to the Nash Ensemble’s previous Hyperion release (67693) of Beethoven’s string quintets, reviewed by yours truly in 32:5. Not aware at the time that a sequel to the earlier volume was in the works, I ever so gently chided note author Richard Wigmore for failing to mention the transcription Beethoven made of his C-Minor Piano Trio for string quintet as late as 1819, assigning it Read more an opus number of 104. In pointing out Wigmore’s omission, I seem to have made a boo-boo of my own, designating the original piano trio version of the work as op. 3/1, when in fact it should have read op. 1/3. Be that as it may, I’ve now corrected my error, and Wigmore has my apology for accusing him of overlooking a work that now appears on this new CD.

The string quintet version seems to have been an exercise in the “I can do it better” category. The idea for arranging Beethoven’s piano trio as a quintet for two violins, two violas, and cello, in the manner of Mozart’s viola quintets, was first advanced by an amateur composer identified as one Herr Kaufmann who submitted his manuscript to Beethoven in 1817. Beethoven didn’t think much of Kaufmann’s effort, calling it a “three-voice” quintet; but he apparently found enough merit in it that two years later he reworked Kaufmann’s part-writing and published his own arrangement of the piece. Beethoven obviously felt the trio worked well enough in the guise of a string quintet to give it his official stamp of approval, so who am I to question his judgment? Still, there’s an awful lot of busy passagework in the piano part of the original trio version that, to my ear, sounds unidiomatic and a scramble when transferred to one or another of the string-players. Listen from about the two-minute mark on in the first movement to hear what I mean. The second violin sounds as if it’s playing The Flight of the Bumblebee . In no way are the Nash players at fault. In fact, of the handful of other recordings available that I’ve heard, only the Endellion String Quartet can claim a performance as equally secure and polished, and theirs comes only in a 10-disc set including Beethoven’s complete string quartets.

The Duet in E? Major for viola and cello, jokingly nicknamed the “Duet with two obbligato eyeglasses,” was a musical offering from Beethoven to Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall, a good friend and talented amateur cellist. Taking the viola part, Beethoven himself played the duo with Zmeskall. The “eyeglasses” sobriquet is believed to have been an amusing reference to the fact that both men needed reading glasses to see the music in front of them. The piece, in only two movements, was written in 1796, but not published until 1912. Zmeskall must have been a talented player indeed, for the cello part is no walk in the park. And in terms of its length and developmental precocity—Beethoven was only 20 when he wrote it—the piece is far from insignificant or inconsequential, a fact borne out by the number of artists who have recorded it, including Emanuel Feuermann and William Primrose, among others. Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins lend the Duet the gravity it deserves on this recording; for despite its silly pet name, it’s really a quite fine and serious piece of writing.

The E?-Major Piano Quartet is yet another of Beethoven’s own arrangements of a work originally written for a different combination of instruments. Inspired, no doubt, by Mozart’s great E?-Major Quintet for Piano and Winds, K 452, Beethoven composed his own quintet for the same complement of instruments—oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano—in 1796, around the same time as the above Duet for viola and cello. The prospect of increased sales was the incentive for arranging the work as a piano quartet in the version heard here. Both versions were published in 1801 under the same opus number, 16.

The Nash Ensemble has had a previous go at the piece in its original piano and winds format on the CRD label. Of the recordings I have of the piece, all but one are of the quintet version—Previn with the Vienna Winds on Telarc, Perahia with various wind soloists on Sony, and Brendel with various wind soloists on Philips. The only recording I have of the piano quartet version for comparison purposes is with Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax on Sony. Stern et alia are a bit faster, but only by a marginal 32 seconds over a 26-minute span. Their performance, however, is not as easygoing or relaxed as that by the Nash Ensemble, often seeming to pull in different directions at once, as is not uncommon with high-profile, high-powered soloists each jockeying for the position of alpha wolf. The Nash’s reading strikes me as more in tune with Beethoven’s genial score, which was, after all, originally not that far removed from the Harmoniemusik genre.

My reaction to this release is more positive than it was to the prequel. Strongly recommended for superb playing and recording, as well as for some of Beethoven’s less often heard but well worth knowing works.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Piano and Strings in E flat major, Op. 16 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Classical 
Written: 1796; Vienna, Austria 
Length: 26 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Quintet for Strings in C minor, Op. 104 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Classical 
Written: 1817; Vienna, Austria 
Length: 28 Minutes 53 Secs. 
Duet for Viola and Cello in E flat major, WoO 32 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Classical 
Written: 1796-1797; Vienna, Austria 
Length: 13 Minutes 47 Secs. 

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