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Beethoven: Late String Quartets / Tokyo String Quartet

Beethoven / Tokyo String Quartet
Release Date: 10/12/2010 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 807481  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews


BEETHOVEN The Late String Quartets: No. 12 in E?; No. 13 in B?; No. 14 in c?; No. 15 in a; No. 16 in F. Grosse Fuge Tokyo Qrt HARMONIA MUNDI 807481/3 (3 SACDs: 180:18)


I’m of a mind—call it a New Year’s resolution—to withhold recommendation from any new Beethoven string quartet cycle, no matter what its merits, if it fails to acknowledge the Grosse Fuge as the proper and rightful ending to the B?-Major Quartet, op. 130. I’m Read more therefore relieved and pleased to report that the Tokyo String Quartet joins the majority of the enlightened, going back to the Alban Berg Quartet in its 1983 cycle for EMI, that have restored the Grosse Fuge to its proper place.


I realize this may a hardnosed, one might even say ideologically motivated, position, but the verdict is in: The preponderant, if not unanimous, opinion is that it was Beethoven’s intention to end the B?-Major Quartet with the Grosse Fuge , that the movement is thematically related to the preceding movements in ways the alternate finale is not, and that Beethoven supplied the alternate finale to placate his publisher. In 2011, there is simply no excuse, none, for a modern, professional, internationally acclaimed ensemble to persist in the bad behavior of placing the alternate finale ahead of the Grosse Fuge , and those that do deserve to be shamed and shunned.


Some may feel I’m forcing a bitter pill—i.e., the Grosse Fuge —down the throats of those who’d rather not swallow it. After all, the critic’s job, they would say, is to comment on the performance, not be an arbiter of taste. But this is Beethoven we’re talking about. We may not always understand or appreciate his musical solutions, but we have an obligation to try, and even if we fail, at least to defer to his judgment, which, in the end, is superior to and more perfect than ours.


In Fanfare 31:4, I was underwhelmed by the Tokyo Quartet’s release of the op. 18 (early) quartets in its new Beethoven cycle, concluding that the ensemble’s earlier effort for RCA was far better. My objections were not reserved exclusively to the playing, which I found to be coarse, grainy, and hard, with too much bow-to-string contact abrasion in attacks and fortissimo passages and a lack of unanimity and incisiveness in chords and at cadence points. I also found the recording to be too up-close, dry, claustrophobic, and fatiguing to listen to, an unusual set of circumstances for any Harmonia Mundi release. I’ve not heard the Tokyo’s remake of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, nor do they appear to have been reviewed in these pages, but I did review a single disc containing the “Harp” and “Serioso” Quartets in 32:5. It was a significant improvement, and I was able to recommend it unreservedly.


The “Razumovsky” trio of quartets was released separately from the “Harp” and “Serioso” on its own two-disc set, a strange arrangement for a cycle of the complete quartets—occasionally, the “Harp” and “Serioso” are packaged with the late quartets—but perhaps this was Harmonia Mundi’s way of suggesting that these two opus numbers are “rogue” works that do not belong to either Beethoven’s middle or late periods. Certainly such a case could be made for the F-Minor Quartet, op. 95 (“Serioso”), which has always struck me as existing in a kind of no-man’s land between the middle and late works.


Not a single issue I complained of in the Tokyo’s op. 18 set has survived in these performances of the late quartets. It would be flattering to think the players read my review and took my criticisms to heart; but the 2007 and 2008 recording dates given for this final installment lead me to believe that the entire cycle was recorded within a fairly short timeframe—the op. 18 quartets were released in 2007—and that the delayed release of the late quartets was a marketing decision on the part of Harmonia Mundi. So, it may just be that the problems noted with the early quartets were an anomaly.


Here in the late quartets we have playing from the Tokyo Quartet that is full-bodied, perfectly balanced and blended, incisive and undivided in attack and release, rich in tone, smooth in bowing, precise in pitch, judicious in tempos, and observant of repeats, dynamics, and expression markings. And all of this is now captured by Harmonia Mundi’s engineers in an acoustic space that provides air around the players and places them in proper perspective.


Here are just a few of the highlights:


(1) In the E?-Major Quartet (op. 127), the Tokyo brings a communicative, rapt concentration to the expansive Adagio that keeps the attention fixed in a long movement that in some performances can seem to ramble.


(2) In the Alla danza movement of the B?-Major Quartet (op. 130), the Tokyo adopts a slightly slower tempo than seems to have become the norm in recent performances, but it’s this slower tempo that allows the concealed theme to emerge in the filigreed first violin part later in the movement without sounding pressed or ruffled. And while no performance of the first 100 or so frightful measures of the Grosse Fuge will ever gently caress the ears, the Tokyo does manage to maintain composure in one of the more musically convincing readings I’ve heard. And yes, for those who can’t do without it, the alternate finale is tacked on after the Grosse Fuge as a final track on the disc.


(3) In the opening Adagio of the C?-Minor Quartet (op. 131), the Tokyo moderates its vibrato to chill the atmosphere in a way that focuses the listener’s mind on Beethoven’s vision of the remoteness and indifference of the universe; and then, in a way I’ve never quite heard before, offers the succeeding Allegro as a comforting counter-argument that it isn’t so. But the last word hasn’t been written yet. The concluding Allegro paints a picture not of a remote and indifferent universe, but of one that is ultimately violent and destructive of itself and all that is in it.


(4) In the Tokyo’s hands, the Heiliger Dankgesang movement in the A-Minor Quartet (op. 131) has to it the feeling of a living, breathing organism in the way it expands and contracts, and then expands again in its quest for oneness with the One. Michelangelo painted the finger of Adam reaching out to and almost touching the finger of God. For Beethoven, almost wasn’t enough; the demand is made and the promise fulfilled.


(5) What can follow but the intoxicated giddiness of the F-Major Quartet (op. 135)? But not all is lightheaded hijinks and joviality. The compressed Lento recalls the Cavatina from op. 130, but it now radiates a feeling of acceptance and resignation rather than sadness and sorrow. The Tokyo’s gentleness and quiet devotional rapture envelop us in a sense of pure and perfect peace.


The performance bar for Beethoven’s string quartets is very high, and while I shall resist the temptation to say that the Tokyo Quartet, at least in the late quartets, has raised the bar even higher, I will say that these readings are about as high as the bar has thus far risen. This set will not replace other favorites—the Emerson, Berg, Endellion, Alexander, Italiano, Cleveland, and Takács quartets—but it will proudly join them. This gets a five-star recommendation.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1.
Quartet for Strings no 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823-1825; Vienna, Austria 
2.
Quartet for Strings no 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825-1826; Vienna, Austria 
3.
Quartet for Strings no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Written: 1826 
4.
Quartet for Strings no 15 in A minor, Op. 132 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria 
5.
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B flat major Op. 133 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825-1826; Vienna, Austria 
6.
Quartet for Strings no 16 in F major, Op. 135 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tokyo String Quartet
Written: 1826 

Customer Reviews

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 los 16 cuartetos de beethoven son extraordinarios February 29, 2012 By rubenjimenez sanchez See All My Reviews "los cuartetos de cuerdas de beethoven son universales en el mundo de la musica..." Report Abuse
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