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Beethoven: The Late Quartets / Lydian String Quartet

Beethoven / Lydian String Quartet
Release Date: 07/24/2012 
Label:  Centaur Records   Catalog #: 3212   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN String Quartets Nos. 12-16. Allegretto in b Lydian Str Qrt CENTAUR CRC 3212/14 (3 CDs 196:14)

In its recordings, the Lydian Quartet has been associated primarily with 20th-century American music, although it has ranged much more widely in its concertizing. Here it tackles the very pinnacle of the standard quartet repertoire, in competition with virtually every distinguished string quartet of the past half-century and beyond. Fortunately, the Lydian contribution is far from redundant, for these are Read more fine and distinctive performances, recorded in very realistic sound. The Lydian players take what might be termed a “classical” approach to these iconic works, in that they tend to set a tempo and hold it firmly, although not without a tasteful application of rubato at some points. They are also particularly concerned with rhythmic precision and clean, clear articulation. They neither rush nor linger, generally avoiding extremes of tempo. These tightly organized performances are further characterized by well-focused tone, precise intonation, shapely phrasing, and judicious pacing. They also display an unusual degree of clarity and attention to balances among the instruments, with a more open, less-blended sound than that produced by such Central European ensembles as the Alban Berg, Smetana, and Takács Quartets. This clarity is a major asset in handling the often complex texture of Beethoven’s writing, and exchanges among the instruments are unusually well defined.

In the first movement of No. 12, op. 127, after an effective statement of the ecstatic opening chords, the Lydian players establish a well-chosen main tempo, one that is urgent without being rushed. The integration of tempo that is a characteristic of these performances and that promotes unity and continuity is in evidence here, as well as in the lengthy slow movement, which is taken at a quicker pace than in performances by the Alban Berg, Takács, or Cypress Quartets but does not seem at all hurried. The scherzo is vigorous but not rushed, as it sometimes is (likewise the trio), and the Allegro finale too is urgent but unhurried. The first movement of the A-Minor quartet, No. 15, op.132, steady and well articulated, successfully conveys the anguish embedded in this movement, if less passionately than the Takács or Cypress. The “Heiliger Dankgesang” slow movement, less drawn out than in the Takács performance, is convincingly paced, and captures the transcendent sublimity and other-worldly serenity of this music. The finale, alternately pleading and hopeful, is taken somewhat more deliberately than in most performances but is thoroughly persuasive.

The first movement of No. 13, op. 130, is urgent and coherent in the Lydian performance. Its shifting tempos are well integrated, and the frequently contrapuntal textures of the movement emerge with satisfying clarity. The Presto is brilliant without being rushed. The following Andante moves along briskly, with gratifyingly clear articulation, and is followed by a propulsive but graceful Alla danza tedesca . (How different is the Cypress Quartet’s more deliberate and flexible treatment of the latter movement, punctuated with small Luftpausen !) The Lydian players take the Cavatina a good deal more quickly than the Takács, Emerson, Endellion, and some others, in a rendition that, without being drenched in emotion, eloquently conveys the sense of poignant resignation expressed in this music. The dense counterpoint of the Grosse Fuge benefits especially from the textural clarity characteristic of these performances, and the Lydian players turn in one of the most cleanly executed and precisely articulated renditions of this difficult movement in my experience. Clarity is also a major asset in the fugal opening movement of No. 14, op. 131, taken at a relatively brisk pace that underplays what Jerry Dubins (in 36:1) calls its “cold, impersonal, remote, and alien cosmogony.” After a propulsive and rhythmically lively second movement, the lengthy Andante ma non troppo variations are also a bit on the quick side, their disparate tempos well integrated, as is usual in the Lydian performances. The succeeding Presto is vigorous but not rushed. The final Allegro is deliberate and resolute at the beginning, gains momentum, and builds to an appropriately angry and defiant climax. I don’t much care, however, for the way the three vehement final chords are spread out, but this is a feature the Lydian has in common with a good many other performances. The last of the quartets, No. 16, op. 135, also receives a convincing performance, one in which the emphasis is less on what Jerry Dubins called the “foppery and tomfoolery” and more on the panoply of serious emotions inhabiting the work, although the first two movements are certainly lively and playful enough.

In addition to the five Late Quartets, the set includes a half-minute Allegretto dating from 1817, which first violinist Daniel Stepner describes as “a sort of neo-baroque greeting card for a friend” and claims to be “recorded here for the first time.” That claim may or may not be technically true, since the Lydian performances were recorded over an extended period, from 2003 through 2010, and it is not indicated which piece was recorded when. But the Allegretto is also included in the Endellion Quartet’s complete set of Beethoven quartets and quintets. That performance was recorded in 2005 and released well before the Lydian effort. The Allegretto is placed first in the Lydian set, followed by the Late Quartets in order of composition (Nos. 12, 15, 13, 14, 16), a configuration I find desirable. As is usual these days, the disc containing No. 13 places the Grosse Fuge after the Cavatina as the finale to the work, followed by the alternate finale, so that when playing the disc straight through one gets a conflated version with both finales. That is probably the most practical arrangement for a CD presentation, since the Grosse Fuge should normally be heard in its original role as the finale to the quartet. When I first became seriously interested in the Beethoven quartets as an undergraduate in the mid 1960s, restoration of the Grosse Fuge to that role was just beginning to take hold, and the prevailing practice was still to use the alternate finale and offer the Grosse Fuge as a stand-alone piece. I still occasionally enjoy hearing the quartet that way. The later finale is a fine piece in its own right and the last music completed by Beethoven, and if we didn’t know of the Grosse Fuge we wouldn’t think to question its suitability as a conclusion to the work.

I have mentioned that the Lydian performances are recorded in very realistic sound, but to access that quality, as well as the merits of the performances themselves, it is especially critical to find the correct and in this case quite high volume level. When that is accomplished, the effect is pretty close to having an actual string quartet playing in the room, with the instruments precisely placed and clearly differentiated. Some may be put off by the very bright, aggressive treble sound, however.

Although I certainly recommend this set, I have no intention of designating a “best” or “first choice” recording. Unlike some commentators, I am a pluralist and do not believe that any single performance can exhaust the content of music of such depth and complexity as this. The poised, balanced, tightly controlled Lydian performances offer a perspective markedly different from that of the more flexible, emphatic, strongly characterized, occasionally over-enthusiastic renditions of the Cypress Quartet, with its rich, sometimes massive sonority. Both these perspectives have something to offer. The contributions of these two ensembles, notwithstanding their excellence and distinctive qualities, do not supersede but rather add to the many fine recordings that have preceded them. The outstanding interpretations of the Alban Berg, Smetana, Emerson, and Takács Quartets certainly retain their value, as do distinguished earlier recordings by Quartetto Italiano and the Yale Quartet, the multiple traversals by the legendary Budapest Quartet, and, going still further into the past, the equally legendary contributions of the Busch Quartet, to name only those recordings I have available for comparison. The variety of approach, sonority, voicing, and detail in these recordings enlarges and enriches our experience of these transcendent quartets.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Allegretto in B Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1817; Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823-1825; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825-1826; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1826; Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 15 in A minor, Op. 132 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 16 in F major, Op. 135 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lydian String Quartet
Written: 1826 

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