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Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 1 / Belcea Quartet

Beethoven / Belcea / Schacher / Lederlin
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Zig Zag   Catalog #: 315   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof ChorzelskiCorina BelceaAxel SchacherAntoine Lederlin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews



BEETHOVEN String Quartets: Op. 18/1, 2, 4, 6; Op. 59/3; Op. 95, Op. 127, Op. 131 Belcea Qrt ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES 135 (4 CDs: 233:24)


This is, apparently, the first installment of what is projected to be a set of Beethoven’s complete string quartets. Since they made their highly praised 2008 set of the Bartók quartets on EMI Classics, there has been one personnel change: Axel Schacher has replaced Laura Samuel as second violin. As one can see, this opening salvo includes Read more samples of the composer’s early (op. 18), middle (op. 59/3 and op. 95), and late (opp. 127 and 131) quartets, which is a really nice way of letting you sample their prowess in all three of his very different quartet styles. Insofar as that goes, I really have no quarrel with Zig-Zag Territoires, but I have a bad feeling that when the complete set is finished they will persist in the jagged and broken programming one encounters on the discs of this first set:


CD 1 – op. 18, No. 6 and op. 127


CD 2 – opp. 95 and 131


CD 3 – op. 18/2 and op. 59/3


CD 4 – op. 18/1 and 4


Why, oh why do CD companies insist on such arbitrary programming? The sanest of all those I’ve seen was the set to which I compared Belcea’s op. 18 quartets, the Emerson Quartet on DGG, where the first six quartets of op. 18 were put on two CDs, only with op. 18/3 preceding Nos. 1 and 2 because it was composed first. That makes sense.


Anyway, the wide-reaching span of these works allowed me to compare Belcea in Beethoven’s three periods with my touchstone performances, Emerson in the early quartets, the Tokyo String Quartet in the middle, and the Colorado Quartet in the late works. And why do I have three different ensembles playing these quartets? Because, I’ve found, each period requires slightly different styles and approaches. The early quartets need a brisk, energetic reading, something like the Haydn quartets only with a greater range of dynamic contrasts and emotional involvement. The middle quartets work best, for me, when they are played with a certain amount of rubato, like most of his piano sonatas from No. 18 on, while the late quartets always seem to need an almost super-energized approach, in which the composer’s emotions are presented naked, almost raw, and only a handful of string quartets seem to get under the skin of these quartets. Thus I compared Belcea’s version of op. 18/1 to Emerson, op. 59/3 to Tokyo, and op. 131 to Colorado. Let’s see how they did.


Emerson’s performance of the first quartet has not only tremendous verve and momentum, but also a wide range of colors and dynamics. I just love their approach: they sound as if they have lived with these early quartets for years, playing them through and feeling their way to an almost perfect interpretation. In the first movement, Belcea sounds as if they are taking exactly the same tempo despite a longer playing time (9:16 to Emerson’s 8:37), so possibly there is an extra repeat involved. (I tried following the two recordings by ear because I don’t have a score, but there are so many different themes, variants, and interludes in this movement that the ear gets somewhat fooled.) In the second movement, however, Belcea’s longer timing (11:18 to Emerson’s 8:49) is due as much, if not more, to a slower pace. Emerson presents us with a sense of sadness and loss, but not an elegiac feeling, whereas Belcea gives us both. Each is a valid reading of the score, and I couldn’t decide between them. Let’s just say that it’s like the difference between the way Artur Schnabel played the Andante s and Adagio s in the early sonatas and the way Wilhelm Backhaus played them. There is a case that can be made for both approaches. In the Scherzo, however, I definitely preferred Emerson’s brisker pace, which seemed to me to suit the character of the music better. In the last movement, both their tempos and their inflections are virtually identical. Belcea’s performance of op. 18/4 is also highly dramatic.


Moving to the op. 59/3 quartet, however, there is a decided difference in sound quality when one compares Belcea against the Tokyo Quartet of 1989-90 (a period in which they were in residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music). This difference manifests itself in the much warmer sound texture produced by lead violinist Peter Oundjian and cellist Sadao Harada of Tokyo as compared to Corina Belcea and Antoine Lederlin of Belcea. Whether or not part of this difference is due to the Tokyo musicians playing with a slightly wider or more prominent vibrato, I can’t say, but to my ears the timbral differences also affect the musical flow. In general, although Tokyo plays with good tempos and sharp attacks in the fast passages, there is decidedly more “roundness” to their overall shaping and pacing of the music. I cannot stress this enough, but the biggest difference is in the playing of the two cellists, and it’s more than just their sound. What I hear in Tokyo’s performance—and this was one thing that really sold me on their approach—was the way Harada plays his instrument almost as if it were the bass soloist in a jazz group. I don’t mean that he employs a more pointed or jazz-inflected rhythm, because he does not; but one constantly hears the bass line as this deep, rich sort of underpinning, not only to the movement of the ensemble lines when all four instruments play together, but also as an anchor sonically. It’s difficult to describe, but Harada somehow makes his cello sound like a ground bass in a Baroque composition, and in the middle quartets I really, really like that effect, especially in the second movement where the cello plays pizzicato, very much like a jazz bassist. Lederlin’s tone is compact but also a bit antiseptic; his pizzicato is just too clinical-sounding for my taste, and in these middle quartets that just doesn’t work well. The Emerson Quartet is also somewhat cooler emotionally, the music is played “tighter” but without this interesting flow of ideas.


I was able to compare Belcea’s performance of the op. 95 quartet to both the Tokyo and Colorado String Quartets. Is this a middle- or a late-period quartet? Often subtitled “Quartetto serioso,” it is primarily a terse, dramatic work, more closely related to the opp. 127-135 quartets than to the op. 74 (“Harp”). Tokyo included it on their set of the middle quartets, as most groups do, but Colorado put it on their set of the late quartets. Although the former group plays it with the right sort of brisk tempos, they score most of their points in the warmth of the second movement and the sense of mystery in the opening Larghetto agitato of the fourth. Colorado is much more urgent in the fast passages, yet equally lyrical in the slow ones. Belcea imparts a good legato flow to the second movement as well, but their real strength is in playing the faster movements—particularly the first—as if their lives depended on it. It’s a helluva performance, one of the real gems of this set, even though, in their hands, you might consider retitling this piece “Quartetto violento.”


The op. 127 also compares favorably to Colorado. Once again, the latter group plays with more warmth in the slow passages while Belcea is more passionate. Then we move to one of Beethoven’s most complex pieces, the string quartet he considered his greatest, the seven-movement op. 131. Here, the Colorado Quartet’s outstanding interpretation has become my benchmark version, and with good reason. They combine structural integrity, warmth of tone, and intensity of expression in a way that I find tremendously appealing (even their performances of the middle quartets are close to the kind of warmth one hears from Tokyo). There are so many little details in Colorado’s performance that grab me, little turnarounds and their particular way of bringing out nuances, that it would be futile to enumerate them all. Once again, Belcea’s tempos are more relaxed, but in this quartet I find that to be both an advantage in that they seem to create more structural unity where Colorado makes it sound as if Beethoven’s mind was stopping and re-starting, and a disadvantage in that the second and fifth movements seem to me a little slow. In the second movement, for instance, Belcea does not present a deeper interpretation; rather, they introduce elements of rubato into the musical line that simply do not fit in this late, more compact work. Nevertheless, the rest of the quartet is splendidly played, and Belcea does a good job of linking the remaining movements together to project a continuous flow of thought.


In summary, then, Belcea’s approach to the early quartets is very close to the Emerson’s, but in the middle and late quartets the Belcea recordings are close but not ideal. The problem with recommending Emerson’s early quartets, however, is that they’re not available as a separate entity, but only in a seven-CD set of the complete quartets, and I didn’t really care for their versions of the middle and late quartets. There’s also a problem now with the Tokyo Quartet’s recordings of the middle works: they’re no longer available as a set of opp. 59 through 95, as they once were, but only in a two-CD reissue of the three Razumovsky quartets. What a bummer.


Overall, however, Belcea presents a fairly unified view of the music. ArkivMusic and CD Universe sell this set for around $40, which comes to $10 per disc. Since they seem intent on putting only two quartets on each disc, even when the playing time of some of them is under an hour (and one comes in at 52 minutes), they’ll probably finish the series with another four-CD issue, which will run you $80 for the complete set. The Colorado Quartet’s releases are fairly pricey: The late quartets alone sell for about $54. Decisions, decisions. Ah, but there are alternatives! The Miró String Quartet does a bang-up job of the op. 18 quartets on Vanguard 1655, and that set sells for only $16.49 at ArkivMusic—or, if you don’t mind mostly mono sound, Bridge 9342 has the Budapest String Quartet, mostly its earlier 1943-44 recordings (which were the better performances) for only $13.99. The opp. 59, 74, and 95 quartets are available in a really fine set by the famed New Hungarian Quartet on Vox 3012 for even less ($15.37 at Amazon and $14.99 ArkivMusic), and then you can get the Yale Quartet’s legendary 1961 recordings of the opp. 127-135 quartets for only $10.99 at ArkivMusic. Total expenditure (of all stereo recordings) as of Halloween 2012: $42.47 plus shipping. And a Happy New Year to you, too!


FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

1.
Quartet for Strings no 9 in C major, Op. 59 no 3 "Razumovsky" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1805/6 
2.
Quartet for Strings no 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 no 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
3.
Quartet for Strings no 4 in C minor, Op. 18 no 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
4.
Quartet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 18 no 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 
5.
Quartet for Strings no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1826 
6.
Quartet for Strings no 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823-1825; Vienna, Austria 
7.
Quartet for Strings no 11 in F minor, Op. 95 "Serioso" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1810 
8.
Quartet for Strings no 1 in F major, Op. 18 no 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin), Axel Schacher (Violin),
Antoine Lederlin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Written: 1798/1800 

Sound Samples

String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: I. Allegro con brio
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: II. Adagio ma non troppo
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: III. Scherzo: Allegro
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: IV. La Malinconia: Adagio -
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6: IV. Allegretto quasi allegro
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127: I. Maestoso - Allegro
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127: II. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile - Andante con moto -
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127: III. Scherzando vivace - Presto - Tempo I
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127: IV. Finale
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2: I. Allegro
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2: II. Adagio cantabile
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2: III. Scherzo: Allegro
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2: IV. Allegro molto quasi presto
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, "Rasumovsky": I. Introduzione: Andante con moto - Allegro vivace
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, "Rasumovsky": II. Andante con moto quasi allegretto
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, "Rasumovsky": III. Menuetto: Grazioso -
String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, "Rasumovsky": IV. Allegro molto

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