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Beethoven: String Quartets 13 & 15, Grosse Fuge / Fitzwilliam Quartet

Beethoven / Fitzwilliam Quartet
Release Date: 12/20/2011 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4805619   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



BEETHOVEN String Quartets: No. 13; No. 15 Fitzwilliam Qrt DECCA ELOQUENCE 4805619 (2 CDs: 111:00)


BORODIN String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2 Fitzwilliam Qrt DECCA ELOQUENCE 4803454 (65:48)


Some performing artists and conductors—pianist Arturo Read more Benedetti Michelangeli and conductor Carlos Kleiber, being two examples—become celebrities by virtue of their eccentricities and aura of mystery surrounding them. It happens less often with chamber ensembles, but if any group qualifies for legendary status by dint of its seeming aversion to recording, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet is surely it.


Unless you happen to live in England, you might be surprised to learn that the ensemble is still very much alive and well, and continues to have an active concert calendar. It’s just that it doesn’t do too much traveling abroad, though I note from its published 2012 schedule that the group is booked for four concerts later in the year at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and that in 2010–11, the ensemble toured Scotland, Italy, and South Africa. Still, since its founding in 1968 by four Cambridge undergraduates, the Fitzwilliam Quartet has produced only 16 recordings, of which the most famous—and for a while unavailable but now back in the catalog—was its 1975–79 complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle, regarded by some as definitive.


Decca’s Eloquence CDs are issued by Universal Music’s Australian division, and those that have come my way previously have laid claim to being first releases on CD. That holds true for the current Borodin disc, recorded in 1982. The two-disc Beethoven set, however, doesn’t state that it’s a CD first, but it does state that the op. 130 Quartet on disc 1, recorded in 1985, is Decca’s final recording in Kingsway Hall. Curiously, the booklet cover and disc label list the Grosse Fuge as a separate work, leading to the surmise that it has been tacked on to the end after the alternate finale; but in fact, it’s the alternate finale that’s tacked on at the end. On the disc, the Grosse Fuge follows the Cavatina as the concluding movement of the quartet, as it should, a point persuasively argued twice in the enclosed booklet notes newly written for this release by the Fitzwilliam’s current first violinist, Lucy Russell, and longtime violist, Alan George.


Probably needless to say, though I’ll say it anyway, is that today’s Fitzwilliam Quartet is not the Fitzwilliam Quartet heard on either of these featured releases. Three entirely different members—Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Sparey, violins, and Ioan Davies, cello—are heard in these 1980s recordings, violist Alan George being the only holdover from this earlier lineup, which, by the way, was the same roster of players for the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s fabled Shostakovich cycle.


Listening to the two Beethoven quartets on these discs, I find myself filled with regret that the Fitzwilliam Quartet, as here constituted, never completed a Beethoven cycle, a regret apparently shared by George as well, for he notes that the ensemble’s projected cycle began and ended with the two quartets given here being the only ones ever released. Tantalizingly, however, he tells us that there are four more of the quartets buried in Decca’s vaults, though with a different first violinist, Daniel Zisman.


Nos. 13 and 15 are played with great warmth and beauty of tone. These are essentially romantic readings, but care is taken not to overdo it with indulgent mannerisms of italicized phrasings or exaggerated ritards. Beethoven didn’t provide metronome markings for his late quartets, so we can’t be sure of his intentions, but as a general observation, it’s probably safe to say that the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s tempos are a bit more relaxed than we tend to hear in more recent performances. But they’re by no means slow or draggy, and in fact it’s that slight broadening that gives these readings a feeling of breadth and lyrical repose.


The Alla danza movement from the B?-Major Quartet, for example, is almost always taken too breathlessly by today’s players. In the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s hands, the waltzing-in-tears effect of this little movement really registers; likewise the Cavatina, played here in hushed, sotto voce tones so serenely sad that the heartbreak is almost unbearable.


Those who may feel a bit put off by some of the more radical aspects of Beethoven’s late works will understand after hearing these performances why, with the possible exception of the Grosse Fuge , these works were embraced by players and audiences alike from the very beginning. This was not music that was misunderstood in its time and that took a generation or more to be recognized for its sublime beauty. The A-Minor Quartet’s monumental “Heiliger Dankgesang” movement unfolds here with a feeling of exalted awe as hallowed and seraphic as I’ve ever heard it.


Loath as I was to take leave of Beethoven’s tête-à-tête with God for Borodin’s two earthbound quartets, duty called. Recording-wise, there’s a two-to-one imbalance between the first and second of these scores, with the later D-Major work enjoying far greater popularity, no doubt due to its famous third-movement Nocturne, which was adapted for orchestra and transformed into a set number, “And This Is My Beloved,” in the musical Kismet . But being the contrarian I often am, I’ve personally always preferred the earlier A-Major Quartet, which, after a slow introduction to the last movement, erupts in a wild kazatsky (Cossack dance) of spastic rhythmic frenzy. In this movement, as in the Beethoven, the Fitzwilliam Quartet tends to moderation in tempo, but here it has the effect of emphasizing the saber-rattling savagery of the ancient Ukrainian tribesmen that Borodin’s music evokes.


When it comes to the finale of the Quartet No. 2, however, the players take the sections marked Vivace at a breakneck pace, hitting every note with surgical precision and proving that their fingers are as quick and nimble as any in the business.


Both of these releases are quite extraordinary, marked by exceptionally fine execution; emotionally engaging, even revelatory readings; and superb audio. From its near-legendary Shostakovich cycle, which I’ve possessed for many years, I’ve always known that the Fitzwilliam String Quartet was good, but to be honest, I’d never heard it in anything else, so I perhaps underestimated just how good it really is—or was, as constituted for these 1980s recordings. But Adrian Corleonis, who reviewed the group’s Franck Quartet on Eloquence in Fanfare 30:2, came to the same conclusion when he “rapturously urged” that release upon you.


How and why, with a string quartet ensemble like the Fitzwilliam in its midst, the British could have for so long promoted the intonation-challenged, flawed Lindsay Quartet is something that beggars the imagination. Perhaps it’s because it has been so difficult to get the Fitzwilliam Quartet into the recording studio.


In any case, I don’t know how much stronger a recommendation is possible than Corleonis’s rapturous one. How about ecstatic or euphoric? Whatever superlatives you care to use, these two albums are must-haves for all chamber-music mavens.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1. Quartet for Strings no 15 in A minor, Op. 132 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria 
2. Quartet for Strings no 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825-1826; Vienna, Austria 
3. Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B flat major Op. 133 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825-1826; Vienna, Austria 

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