Beethoven: The Early String Quartets / Budapest String Quartet

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BEETHOVEN String Quartets, op. 18/1–6 Budapest Qrt BRIDGE 9342/AC (2 CDs: 135:18.


This set completes Bridge’s offering, in three installments, of a complete live Beethoven cycle by the Budapest Quartet, drawn from concerts at the Library of Congress over the period of its long residency there, from the war years to the early ’60s.


As a fixture of the American musical scene in the mid 20th century, the Budapest Quartet was in many ways the chamber-music equivalent of what Toscanini and the NBC Symphony represented on the orchestral scene: a similar “high Modernist” approach of score-based rigor, with virtuoso execution characterized by tonal luster, rhythmic brio, and expressive intensity. Although the sound and interpretations are familiar from the quartet’s studio recordings from the 1930s (CDs on Biddulph) and early and late 1950s (mono cycle on United Archives, stereo remakes recently collected in a bargain box in Sony’s Masters series), these live versions consistently score in their extra keenness, freshness, and the kind of spontaneous risk-taking only possible at a live event.


Quartets Nos. 1–3 are taken from concerts in 1944, with Edgar Ortenberg on second violin (the notes inform us that No. 3, from March 9 of that year, was actually his debut appearance with the group); No. 5 dates from a year earlier, when Alexander Schneider still occupied that seat. First movements are tightly coiled, with perfectly balanced tonal weight, knife-edge attack, and a wonderfully supple molding of the themes within a rigorously classical conception of unified tempo. (Exposition repeats are consistently omitted throughout.) Slow movements have great expressive immediacy, luxuriant tonal fullness, and often a penchant for dynamic and articulative extremes—for two examples, hear first violin Joseph Roisman’s breathtaking emergence from inaudibility in the messa di voce beginning of his melody in the Adagio of No. 1, and the radiant textural saturation the group achieves in the last variation of the Andante cantabile from No. 5. Scherzos leap off the page with rapier-like cut and thrust; finales are forcefully projected with trenchant, weighty brilliance (No. 1), blistering brio (No. 2), and mercurial group reflexes at an extreme tempo (No. 3).


Two late performances (No. 4 from 1962, No. 6 from 1960) undeniably display evidence of a collective hardening of the arteries, with thicker sonorities, less responsive interplay, and some moments of less than perfect tuning (though these should not be exaggerated). Even so, there is ample compensation in a lifetime’s accumulated interpretive wisdom, with a dramatic and emotional engagement that remains highly compelling—in No. 4 in C Minor, hear the richly affecting consolation they draw from the first movement’s contrasting major-mode theme, or their highly original conception of the third movement’s Trio, with a long-breathed gradual acceleration.


The sound is close-miked and clear, vividly transferred at a high level. There is some distortion in the loudest passages from the 1940s recordings, though this will present no obstacle to the set’s obvious target audience of historic collectors.


As a bonus we have a nine-minute rehearsal fragment from 1944, a fascinating glimpse of the quartet at work on the exposition of the E-Major Molto Adagio from the Second (E-Minor) “Razoumovsky” Quartet. There is a lively back-and-forth (in Russian—naturally—with no translation provided), with painstaking attention (as one would expect) to tuning and rhythmic control, and the vivid sense of an interpretation being hammered out among four strong-willed individuals. The atmosphere is highly concentrated, with no hint of comfortable routine.


Besides being a mandatory purchase for those collecting the cycle, this set will be self-recommending to chamber-music aficionados and historic collectors generally.


FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: BCD9342A/B


  • UPC: 090404934223


  • Label: Bridge


  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet



Works:


  1. Quartet for Strings no 1 in F major, Op. 18 no 1

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet


  2. Quartet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 18 no 2

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet


  3. Quartet for Strings no 3 in D major, Op. 18 no 3

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet


  4. Quartet for Strings no 4 in C minor, Op. 18 no 4

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet


  5. Quartet for Strings no 5 in A major, Op. 18 no 5

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet


  6. Quartet for Strings no 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 no 6

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Budapest String Quartet