Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Hungarian String Quartet's 1953 Beethoven cycle stands the test of time very well, even after a half century of excellent competition and sonic advances, to say nothing of the group's own 1960s stereo remake. I've never made up my mind which of the two Hungarian Quartet Beethoven cycles I prefer, since each is quite different from the other. 1953's distant and slightly opaque ambience contrasts to the stereo version's closer, more vibrant and detailed pickup. These sonic characteristics reinforce my general impressions of 1953's smoother, more uniform ensemble blend versus the later one's more individual, contradictory approach to phrasing and vibrato and tonal astringency. As a result, first violinist Zoltan Szekely's intense vibrato
makes more of a stinging impact in stereo.
For the most part 1953's tempos are faster, apparently in order to honor the composer's often optimistic metronome markings, yet they never sound pushed or stressful. Cogent examples of what I mean include Op. 59 No. 2's Presto finale, where the dotted rhythm accompaniment is tightly, perhaps rigidly articulated in stereo, but organically flows and even presses ahead in mono. The earlier Op. 18 No. 5 variation movement benefits from swifter, more unified tempos than in the relatively disjointed remake, while Op. 131's Presto boasts a sense of lightness and balance that eludes the stereo version, which, however, is superior in terms of intonation. Yet the emotional fragility and polyphonic distinction that glue your ear to Op. 132's Molto adagio in stereo prove less gripping and more matter-of-fact in mono. It all boils down to apples and oranges, although both traversals share one big scrappy lemon: the Grosse Fuge!
If you missed EMI's limited-edition 1991 reissue, Arkivmusic.com's on-demand reprint program gives you another opportunity. Should the stereo cycle also pique your curiosity, it's available as part of the 50-CD boxed set Beethoven: The Collector's Edition (EMI 3877392).
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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