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Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 59; String Quintet Op. 29 / Kuijken Quartet

Release Date: 05/10/2011 
Label:  Challenge   Catalog #: 72362   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kuijken String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


BEETHOVEN 3 String Quartets, op. 59, “Razumovsky.” String Quintet in C, op. 29 Kuijken Quartet CHALLENGE 72362 (2 SACDs: 137:15)

Never has the admonition “Don’t judge a book by its cover” Read more been more applicable than in the case of this new release. As soon as I saw “Kuijken Quartet” on the front of the slipcase, my kneejerk reaction was to want to send it back to our head honcho with a curt note reminding him that Beethoven on period instruments—especially his quartets—is not my thing. But a little voice told me to open the set and read the booklet notes to at least learn what the latest academically spun argument was for performing Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets on period instruments.

What greeted me was a two-paragraph confession by Sigiswald Kuijken himself, one of the deans of the period-instrument movement, and it came as quite a surprise that put a big smile on my face. I fear, however, that it might put a big frown of disappointment on the faces of Kuijken’s loyal followers who may feel they’ve been abandoned by one of their leaders. Here is what Kuijken has to say: “This recording was made with so-called ‘modern’ instruments. Although our name is generally linked with ‘period performance practice,’ listeners should not expect or seek a deliberate, specific ‘historic’ tendency in this recording: this was not what defined our collaboration for this production” There’s more, but it simply elaborates on the Kuijken’s decision to use modern instruments.

I should interject at this point that disc 2 in the set—containing op. 59/3 and the string quintet—is not new. It was made in 2006 and previously released as a single, which was reviewed by James Reel in Fanfare 31:6.

Once I read the Kuijken’s note, I felt a lot more comfortable auditioning and reviewing this set. I will say right off the bat, however, that these performances, passable though they are for modern-instrument readings, are not entirely free of period-performance practices. Or as my mother used to say, “A leopard doesn’t change its spots.” Allow me then to document what I like and don’t like—mostly the latter—about these performances, so at the end you can make up your own mind as to whether you’d be inclined to acquire this set yourself.

Beethoven published metronome markings for a number of his works, among them the three op. 59 quartets, and the Kuijkens do their best to follow them, as they do the dynamic markings. That may take a bit of getting used to if you’re familiar with ensembles that interpret the directions more freely. The first movement of the F-Major Quartet, for example, seemed rather too brisk to me for a simple Allegro , but I checked the score and found a metronome marking of 88 to the half note, which is actually quite fast. So, I set my metronome to 88 and turned it on. Sure enough, the Kuijkens are right on the mark. The question is, was Beethoven?

Maazel’s original metronome suggested 120 bpm (beats per minute) for a tempo marking of Allegro . But that calculation applied to the quarter note; 88 bpm to the half note equals 176 to the quarter note, which is somewhere between Maazel’s Presto and Prestissimo . At that speed, the first movement feels like it’s in two instead of four. Though Beethoven didn’t indicate cut time, I suspect he intended the movement to be beat in two because the shortest note values are triplets; there’s not a 16th note to be found in the entire movement.

While I’m not accustomed to hearing it taken quite so fast, I’m unable to say the tempo is out of bounds since it seems to follow the composer’s own instructions. But where I do find cause for objection is at the sequence of broken chords that alternate between the voices in mm 85–88 and their corresponding return in mm 144–149, and again in mm 332–336. In each case, these are full half-notes, with no dots over them or anything to indicate that they should be played with a staccato bow stroke and cut short. Yet this is what the Kuijkens do, and it sounds to me very much like a vestige of period-performance practice. The strange harmonic progression and fragmentation between the voices are disruptive enough without clipping and choking the notes off before they’ve fully sounded. It seems odd to me that the players would violate the written score in this particular instance after paying such meticulous attention to every other detail.

The rest of op. 59/1 goes without incident, though as Reel noted in his review of op. 59/3, the Kuijkens are sparing with vibrato—another trace of period-performance practice—an approach that robs the slow movements of much of their warmth. It’s especially noticeable in the playing of the very long and very, very slow Adagio of op. 59/1, which wants for the mournfulness of its mesto modifier. Up to the time he wrote it (1806), this, in my opinion, is Beethoven’s greatest slow movement, and it asks for an emotional intensity the Kuijkens just don’t deliver. Their performance is note-perfect but matter-of-fact, and it leaves me cold.

In op. 59/2, I have a problem with the trio section of the Allegretto third movement. At the key change to E Major, the Thème russe is immediately stated by the viola. Unfortunately, it’s barely audible because the second violinist (none other than Sigiswald himself) seems to think his running triplets, marked p , are more important, and he simply drowns out violist daughter Sara.

Returning once again to metronome markings, I will add my voice to the opinion expressed by others that Beethoven didn’t fully realize the implications of his markings. The first movement of the C-Major Quartet, op. 59/3, after the slow introduction, is marked Allegro vivace, instead of just the simple Allegro that marked the first movement of op. 59/1, so naturally in Beethoven’s mind that called for an even faster metronome setting, this time 89 to the half note. But the difference is the first movement of op. 59/3 has lots of 16th notes. If a half note were to receive a metronome beat of 89, a quarter note would be 178, and at that tempo, it would be virtually unplayable. The Kuijkens take it at around 120 to the quarter note (60 to the half note), which is just about the tempo that every other ensemble takes it. Here, I feel the Kuijkens turn in some of their very best playing, observing all of the hairpin dynamics, accents, and bowing articulation instructions.

I’m less happy, though, with the second movement, where the players adopt a tempo a bit faster—too fast for my taste—than Beethoven’s metronome marking of 56 to the dotted half note (the movement is in 6/8). Again, I think it was Beethoven who was at fault, for he qualifies his Andante with con moto quasi Allegretto , an instruction that would suggest a rather faster metronomic beat. So the players must make a choice: follow the metronome indication or follow the tempo marking. The Kuijkens choose the latter and, by doing so, some of the primordial mystery of the movement is lost. J. W. N. Sullivan, writing about this “strange slow movement,” describes it thusly: “There is here a remote and frozen anguish, wailing over some implacable destiny. This is hardly human suffering; it is more like a memory from some ancient and starless night of the soul.” This slowish, rocking, berceuse-like movement is one of Beethoven’s most unusual and deeply affecting creations, and the gently swaying figure that twice brings a sense of comforting at mm. 20–24 and at mm. 176–180 is lent an additional feeling of reassurance and consolation when it returns one last time at the very end after a shocking harmonic detour. As in the great slow movement of op. 59/1, I just don’t sense an intense emotional engagement from the Kuijkens. The notes are all in place, but Sullivan’s anguished wailing is missing.

In terms of technical execution, there’s much to admire here, as in the exceptionally clean, clear, and precise passagework in the op. 59/3’s madcap finale. But Beethoven’s string quartets have long been the Olympus for quartet ensembles and they’ve been scaled by the best of the best. In the climb to the summit, I’d have to say that the Kuikjens reach Base Camp IV, which is pretty impressive, but still a ways below the very top. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but with versions of the quartets available from the Emerson, Cleveland, Alexander, Talich, Berg, Takács, and Tokyo quartets, I almost have to wonder if this one from the Kuijkens can come close to competing.

The C-Major String Quintet is an earlier work than the “Razumovsky” quartets and rather an odd disc companion to them. Most consider the “Harp” Quartet, op. 74, as belonging to Beethoven’s middle period and include it in sets of the “Razumovskys.” Perhaps another release containing opp. 74 and 95 is forthcoming.

Challenge’s recording is bright, forward, and achieves a satisfying balance between the instruments. For a string quartet, though, where you have four like players seated in close proximity to each other, I’m not convinced that surround sound yields significant benefit over the two-channel stereo mix. It’s now up to you, as it ultimately always is, whether the attractions of this package are sufficient to warrant your consideration.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 7 in F major, Op. 59 no 1 "Razumovsky" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kuijken String Quartet
Written: 1805-6 
Quartet for Strings no 8 in E minor, Op. 59 no 2 "Razumovsky" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kuijken String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805-1806; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 9 in C major, Op. 59 no 3 "Razumovsky" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kuijken String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805/6; Austria 
Quintet for Strings in C major, Op. 29 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kuijken String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1801; Vienna, Austria 

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