Beethoven: This string quartet could save your life

Welcome to the 52nd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: Razumovsky Quartets, opus 59 (1806)

Outside of the boxing ring, there are few ordeals more terrifying in sport than facing a fast bowler in cricket, a man hurling a rock-hard object at you from less than 20 metres and at a speed of ninety-plus miles an hour. At the receiving end, the batsman has time while the bowler is running in to say his prayers while steeling himself for being hit, getting out, or being made to look ridiculous. From the moment the ball leaves the bowler’s hand, the batsman has a fraction of a second to decide what to do. In Test cricket, there is nowhere to hide.

The 1981 series between England and Australia was a brutal encounter between cricket’s oldest rivals. England lost one Test and looked to be heading for a thrashing when, before the third Test, Mike Brearley was appointed captain and everything changed. A philosopher who would retrain as a psychoanalyst, Brearley devised a strategy for dealing with murderous fast bowling. While the bowler was running in, Brearley would hum the opening cello motif of Beethoven’s first Razumovsky Quartet, opus 59/1. Why this particular phrase he never explained, but it worked for the England captain and it works just as well for me, as an aid to concentration and courage in times of great stress.

The triptych of quartets, ordered by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky opens the second phase of Beethoven’s engagement with the string quartet. They are his 6th, 7th and 8th quartets and each of them has a buried Russian tune, the most obvious being the sub-theme of opus 59/2 which pops up in the coronation scene of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov and in the works of other Russian composers. The Russian flavour, however, is incidental. Beethoven is driving these quartets into new territory, no longer as playthings for high society but as inward-looking reflections on the state of the human race at a time of war, hunger and inhumanity. Opus 59/2 begins with a huge question mark and Beethoven lets the second note hang in the air, as if leaving space for the audience to provide an answer. He seems to have resolved something in his own life at this time: he no longer hides his deafness. Let the world know, he says, what a musician must suffer for his art. Asked by an uncomprehending listener what he was trying to convey in these searching works Beethoven is supposed to have said, ‘Oh, they are not for you, but for a future age.’

Among our panel of expert listeners, two – the violinist Gidon Kremer and the former BBC music chief Roger Wright – make the strongest possible recommendation for the Philips recording by the Quartetto Italiano. You will not have to listen long to be seduced. The quartet, founded by post-grads in Reggio Emilia in 1945, cultivated a warmer, deeper tone than the edgier style of German and American rivals. The players – Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi (violins, married couple), Piero Farulli (viola) and Franco Rossi (cello) – made their first European tour in 1948. Three years later they had an immersive encounter in Salzburg with Wilhelm Furtwängler, who advised them to loosen up and embrace Romantic freedoms. Two decades later, when they recorded the Beethoven cycle, the quartet had a distinctive sound and an introspective manner that was ideally suited to these middle-period quartets. I am particularly drawn to the way they express Beethoven’s open colloquy with his imagined future audience. There is also an elegance of expression that few others can rival.

The Amadeus Quartet are faultlessly civilised, fearlessly slow, daringly boring at times. One is forever conscious that they are aiming for the ultimate performance and settling for the reliable. I don’t mean to be perjorative – they were a tremendous ensemble and they have much to say in the next group of quartets – but I can’t escape the conclusion that their approach did not quite work in this set.

The Barylli Quartet in 1955 and the Alban Berg Quartet quarter of a century later convey a Viennese sense of ownership in two very different modes. The Baryllis are sweet as apple strudel, the Bergs as reserved as a ticket to the New Year’s Ball. Beyond the ultra-Viennaness of their manner, both are probing, thoughtful groups who never let us forget that deep questions are being asked, whatever they might be.

The American style of the Guarneri Quartet (1967) is decidedly less inquisitve, albeit pinpoint in its perfection. I am more inclined to the swagger of the Emerson Quartet (1997), no holds barred. For the full Russian flavour you need to hear the Moscow-based Beethoven Quartet, close friends of Dmitri Shostakovich, who play for themselves without regard for consumer confidence. It’s rough in patches but refreshing to hear musicians who really don’t give a damn who’s listening, if anyone.

Of all musical genres not has undergone such collective improvement over the past half-century as the string quartet. There are groups today who run rings around the practices of the last century, playing standing up if they please and choosing speeds that would have shattered a metronome of Beethoven’s time. The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet are a byword for high performance and the rising Cuarteto Casals from Spain have a richer range of colours than most and a really slinky way about them in the Adagio. My current favourite is the Parisian Quatuor Ebène (2019) – Pierre Colombet (Violin), Gabriel Le Magadure (Violin), Marie Chilemme (Viola), Raphaël Merlin (Violoncello) – athletic in the most graceful way, like a hundred-metre Olympic runner breasting the tape. It may not be cricket, but it’s great sport.

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  • ira says:

    the quartetto italiano was also notable for playing without scores.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The Borodin Quartet;s CD with leader Koppelmaan and he great cellist Valentin Berlinsky are beautiful beyond belief in the Largo e mesto slow movement and the first violin’s hushed arpeggio after the pizzicati section and on through the finale’s fugue. The first notes of the very opening captured me. I’ve never recovered.

    Earlier loves were the Busch, Budapest, and Vienna Konzerthaus on Westminster.

  • MezzoLover says:

    Quartetto Italiano is unsurpassed – and unsurpassable – not only in Op.59 but in all of Beethoven’s string quartets, IMHO.

    However, for these three emotionally charged middle-period quartets, I do have a soft spot for the distinctive, “bittersweet” timbre of the best Czech ensembles from the 2nd half of the last century – the original Vlach, the Janáček (2nd and perhaps the best-known incarnation, with Adolf Sýkora as 2nd violin, in Op.59/2), and, of course, the great Smetana (Jiří Novák, Lubomír Kostecký, Milan Škampa, and Antonín Kohout, recorded in 1978/1979 by Nippon Coluimbia).

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Always, first, the Quartetto Italiano.
    But I am also very fond of the Razumovskys as played by the Hungarian Quartet in their old mono EMI recordings.
    I could quite happily live with these sets to the exclusion of any others, as fine as some of them may be.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    The Quartetto Italiano’s performances of Op. 59 are also my favourites, if one considers the combination of technical polish, depth of interpretation, and sound quality of the finished product. Though this series is grounded on the availability of a ‘CD quality’ internet stream, a couple of remarks on recording quality. In general, I find that chamber music on the Philips label in the 1960s and 1970s has a sound quality consistently equal to or higher than most/all of its main corporate rivals. Though the late quartets were recorded the earliest in the Italian’s cycle, they sound just as fresh and ‘present’ as those recorded later. Readers should note that the Italians’ Op. 18/6 and their Op.59 set were also originally set down in Quadraphonic. The Pentatone label has released these four quartets on SACD. Even the stereo versions sound richer and more ‘velvety’ on a SACD player, compared to the CD versions in the relatively recent box set of the complete Philips recordings. Notable in the Italian’s interpretations are the expansive adagios of the 1st and 2nd Rasumovskys : about a minute slower in the adagio of the First than the Busch and Amadeus, neither of whom are speedsters.

    As for a period instruments version, the Casals quartet mentioned above is refreshing and provocative ( in a good way ) — not least some hair-raising tempos. The 1941-ish Busch Quartett recording on Columbia is also very satisfying. So are the stereo versions of the Vegh Quartet, despite the leader’s sometimes wobbly intonation in the higher registers of his A and E strings.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    For me, the second recording of the Vegh Quartet leads the recommendation list: Followed by some of those which were mentioned here (the Italian Quartet and the new
    Ebene especially)

  • Eric says:

    Meanwhile, I imagine Bob Willis (an avid Wagnerian) was probably humming Ride of the Valkyries whilst steaming in for his 8 famous wicket haul.

  • Frans Wentholt says:

    Talich Quartet.

  • David Drasin says:

    I think opus 18 has 6 quartets, so these are 7, 8 and 9. (I taught math for 50 years, so I hope that’s right!)

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Would the op. 132 quartet be more suitable as a life-saving quartet? The Heiliger Dankgesang might better depict lives being saved.

    Also, I like your thoughts on the Emerson cycle. I know some people may be against their postmodern approach but their Beethoven quartet cycle is suitably punchy and incisive.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The Quartetto Italiano is arguably “the” benchmark for Beethoven’s quartets, especially those of his “middle” and “late” periods. The Amadeus Quartet is also very good, and a good complement.

    Of the younger ensembles, the Quartetto di Cremona is in a class for itself, and in superb SACD-Hybrid sound.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      Could you tell me your thoughts on the Emersons’ DG set? I hope more people take to its incisive and punchy approach. I know it may be more suited to American postmodern culture but I like the way it moves away from the gemutlich and genial soft-edged approach we are used to.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Sorry, I can’t give you an answer. My impression of the Emerson Str. Q., which I listened to in other (modern) repertoire, is that their playing just go the straightest line from A to Z and don’t care about music. Thus, I never bothered to (buy and) listen to their Beethoven set.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        PS: Moreover, it seems that the Emerson Str. Q. deleted the final Allegro in Op. 130, according to recommendations of people who “know better” than Beethoven himself, geniuses like Th. Adorno and his gang. The Beethoven string quartets is a very competitive field concerning recordings. Incomplete sets should not be considered.

        Very serious, but not about the Serious Quartet… 🙂

  • David Sanders says:

    “Of all musical genres not has undergone such collective improvement over the past half-century as the string quartet.”
    Don’t you mean “none”?

  • ben dominitz says:

    If your notion of Beethoven is that of a gemutlich and primarily genial composer with soft edges than I can see why you would think of the Quartetto Italiano as your supreme interpreter. If however, you embrace his iconoclastic, revolutionary nature, or, his true nature, you would embrace other choices. Listen to the Grosse Fuga by the Lasalle Quartet, and you may understand. Unfortunately, they did not record the middle quartets.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      Have you got the Emerson String Quartet cycle on DG? It would be a good departure from the gemutlich, genial and soft-edged approach from the Italiano set. I know some people may think it’s too post-modern but it’s punchy, incisive and suits itself to the unorthodox, ruffianly ways of Beethoven’s music.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        The Emerson Quartet are often described as playing perfectly (all the right notes in the right pitch etc.) but completely lacking in feeling.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I’ll go with the Quartetto Italiano. They even photographed better. Those album covers!

  • MezzoLover says:

    On a related note, the year 1806 is also my favorite year as far as LvB’s music is concerned.

    Consider this list of consecutive opus numbers for music composed/completed in 1806 by LvB:

    — Op.58 the Fourth Piano Concerto
    — Op.59 the three ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets
    — Op.60 the Fourth Symphony
    — Op.61 the Violin Concerto

    And that’s not even counting the 32 Variations in C minor for Piano without opus number.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Interesting and story of Furtwaengler’s characteristic advice to Quartetto Italiano at Salsiburgo in 1951, also Ben Dominitz’s description of their playing, although at first glance contradictory unless the advice took hold, went too far, or was misunderstood.

    I like the Alban Berg’s playing of Haydn quartets, but their Op. 59 is hard-nosed and rushed, not Viennese at all.

    The Borodin Quartet’s’ are on EMI and Virgin. Verb sap.

  • David says:

    I think the first set by the Tokyo Quartet on RCA has to be considered.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    I am a bit surprised nobody has mentioned the Takacs Quartet, who many reviewers the usual compendiums have considered the premier quartet in Beethoven. Of course, the Italiano Quartet play in a very different (now considered “old fashioned”) style. Those who grew up with that kind of performance culture may prefer it to “new fangled ways”.

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