BEETHOVEN: Quartet in E Flat, Op. 127. Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131. Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. Quartet in F, Op. 135. Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 "Quartetto Serioso." Quartet in B flat, Op. 130. Grosse Fugue, Op. 133.
Takács Quartet
DECCA B0003875 (3 CDs) TT: 74:20 / 67:40 / 78:19

DEBUSSY: The Afternoon of a Faun. Clouds & Festivals from Three Nocturnes. La Mer. The Martyrdom of Saint Sébastien. RAVEL: Pavane for a Dead Princess.
Philharmonia Orch/Guido Cantelli, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 62951 (M) (ADD) TT: 72:57

These two 2005 issues might seem incongruous site-mates, given that the Cantelli collection is a re-mastered re-release of an EMI Testament CD of mono performances recorded in 1954-55, whereas the Tackás set was recorded in 2003-04, completing their 3-volume collection of the Beethoven String Quartets. But they have in common a sublimity of expression and execution (I haven’t used the word “sublimity” more than a dozen times in 60 years of reviewing) that sets them apart and above.

The Cantelli disc not only adds Ravel’s Pavane to the Debussy contents of that pricey Testament CD of 1992, the further, ever-so-subtle remastering of Ian Jones is available at midprice! I cannot imagine anyone interested in the music or the conductor wanting to ignore it. The Philharmonia Orchestra of London was at its peak in 1954-55 and inimitably responsive to the conductor’s every wish. There may be occasional moments where another performance might seem to take precedence, but Cantelli’s sense of coherence and overall musical sensibility make this, for me, the single greatest Debussy disc ever published. Not to own it would be masochistic, even by those who don’t consider Debussy an A-list composer. As a bonus, the best of EMI’s mid-’50s mono surpassed many stereo endeavors in that early twin-channel period. Forget the time-gap of 50 years. Some great recordings – and this surely is one – become greater with the passage of time. Like Chateau Lafitte Rothschild.

As for the Tackás triumph, it contains the most beautiful playing of Beethoven’s surpassingly inspired last works I’ve ever heard, in listening that goes back as a teen to 78-rpm albums by the Busch and Budapest String Quartets. I won’t pretend to have heard many much less all of the sets since, but nothing in my experience – including the Hagen version of Op. 131, my other favorite string quartet as of now – comes near the sublime probing or incomparably matched playing of the Tackás, especially in slow movements, but not a whit less persuasively in whirlwind scherzos or gritty allegros. They opt to play the monumental Grosse Fuge, originally written as the finale of Op 130, in that context, rather than as a separate movement to which Beethoven gave the stand-alone Op. number 133. Then they play the alternative finale that was Beethoven’s last completed work, so you can program the disc to your private liking. I have to say that hearing the Grosse Fuge in context, played with the passionate immersion of the four Tackás string players – so grippingly that it seemed to last half the time of most performances –it will be my choice in future, however much longer I live.
As for the entire Beethoven quartet literature, it makes great sense to include Op. 95 here – an isolated work from the same period as the “Archduke” Trio, when Beethoven was emerging from several years of comparative silence, by then all but totally deaf. I’ve never cared a lot for Op. 18/1-6, and find movements in the three “Rasumovsky”s (Op. 59/1-3) more workbench than inspirational, leaving the Op. 74 “Harp” as unblemished as Op. 95, but neither of those as transendental as the swan-song Quartets Opp. 129-135. Unless you loathe chamber music, no matter how many sets of Beethoven’s String Quartets you may own (or have discarded for newer revelations), this volume should anchor your collection. Decca’s sonics match the performances, which is to say A-plus.

R.D. (February 2005)