Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Delian Quartet’s approach to the first numbered of Beethoven’s string quartets (not actually the first one he wrote, however) is nothing if not distinctive. In an interview printed in the accompanying booklet, the Delian players (it is not indicated which of them is speaking at any given point) identify this work as “one of the larger Beethoven string quartets,” and their interpretation is clearly guided by such a perception. To these musicians, the work is not “early Beethoven” but just Beethoven, and they de-emphasize its high spirits in favor of deep seriousness. Their interpretation is an expansive one in terms of tempo. Surveying 13 other performances of this work I have on CD in my collection, I find that three of them
exceed the Delian’s timing in the slow movement, the 1952 Budapest Quartet by a small amount, the 1991 Tokyo Quartet by bit more, and the 1936 Calvet Quartet by a lot. With those three exceptions, the Delian players’ timings are the longest in every movement. Nonetheless, their tempos do not seem excessively slow in the context of their overall approach, and there is also a good degree of flexibility in their handling of tempo. The performance has its own kind of momentum, but the Delian players are less concerned with urgency and linear flow than with precise articulation, pronounced vertical stresses, and a distinct statement and characterization of each phrase. I felt that they underplay some of the peaks, for instance, the angry minor-key outbursts in the development of the first movement. In the second movement, said to have been inspired by the tomb scene of Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet
, the anger and despair build up gradually and reach their zenith only near the end. The trio of the third movement is less assertive than in many performances. The finale would not seem slow if one were not aware that everyone else plays it faster, and I much appreciate the very clean articulation of rapid runs, which some distinguished ensembles that favor a more breathless approach do not achieve. Technically, the playing is highly accomplished, with sumptuous, well-rounded tone, accurate intonation, and precise ensemble. Balances are impeccable and textures are very clear, in keeping with the ensemble’s evident desire that each strand of music should be heard distinctly. I find the Delian approach to this work interesting and rewarding; others might find it studied.
Beethoven’s C-Major String Quintet dates from 1801, the same year as the revised version of op. 18/1 that is nearly always the one played today. I have never understood why the quintet fails to attract the degree of attention and veneration accorded the quartets. It’s a gorgeous, imposing work, about 35 minutes in duration and full of invention and dazzling compositional skill. The Delian Quartet feels that it “contains inklings of the Beethoven of the middle and late periods,” but I think it also has some strong reminiscences of Mozart. It receives a fine performance from these musicians, assisted by violist Gérard Caussé. Their characteristics of precise articulation, shapely phrasing, and clear textures are again in evidence, but the playing seems a bit freer and more spontaneous than in the quartet. Tempos are once again on the deliberate side, but one wouldn’t know it without comparisons, since they seem quite appropriate. Here my comparisons are limited to four: the Endellion (Warner), Tokyo (RCA), and Zürich (Brilliant) quartets, and the 1945 Budapest Quartet recording on Sony. The Delian’s first movement tempo seems consistent with the
marking and works well. At a much faster pace, the Endellion is urgent but sometimes rushed. The Tokyo Quartet is closer to the Delian tempo but offers a more blended sound, with less clarity of texture. The poignant slow movement is nicely shaped and well sustained in the Delian rendition, while the scherzo is lively without being overly fast and has a grandeur that is missing from the rather hurried Endellion performance. The finale too is effectively paced, with a pronounced contrast in tempo between the
sections that is sometimes missing in other performances.
The op. 137 Fugue for String Quintet dates from 1817 and lasts under two minutes. In style it is suggestive of some of the fugal movements or sections in Beethoven’s late works. The Delian performance is once again comparatively deliberate and very clearly articulated, with exemplary clarity of texture. Those of the Endellion and Zürich quartets (coupled with their recordings of the op. 29 quintet) are quicker and livelier.
The Delian performances are recorded in clear, detailed, and tightly focused sound, with minimal reverberation, qualities I have come to associate with the Oehms label. With its distinctive rendering of the quartet and compelling one of the underrated quintet, this release deserves an enthusiastic recommendation.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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