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.
B0003875 (3 CDs) TT: 74:20 / 67:40 / 78:19
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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
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)