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Beethoven : The String Quartets - an incomplete feeling

Le Quatuor Vanbrugh


By Eric Taver

LettrineARIS, 11 December 1998 - After only ten years together, the Vanbrugh Quartet, based in Ireland, has embarked on the largest scale endeavor imaginable for this classic instrumental form: recording Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets. This huge set of works remains incomparable. Haydn, Bartok or Shostakovitch also wrote all their lives for this curious ensemble made up of two violins, a viola and a cello. But none of these composers ever revolutionised the genre as did Beethoven during the course of his life; the first and the last of Beethoven's quartets are as though written by composers stemming from totally different periods.

The first six quartets are still quite close to the very 18th century refined wit of "good papa Haydn", as Beethoven liked to call his teacher. The Seventh Quartet, with its considerably larger proportions (it lasts more than forty minutes), and the new spirit of the times, are in every way comparable to the revolution represented by the orchestral writing in the Third Symphony, the "Eroica". Finally, the last quartets, composed after the Ninth Symphony, the "Choral" Symphony, are already pointing towards the 20th century with their often seemingly arid sound the first time round and the almost gleeful way they break with tradition.

The three periods into which Beethoven’s music is traditionally divided are thus readily apparent in the quartets: youth, maturity, exploration of new paths. And therein lies the difficulty in recording the complete quartets: all three styles must be encompassed, which brings us to the true weakness of this version by the Vanbrugh Quartet. We can appreciate their freshness, the aptness of their approach, neither namby-pamby nor uselessly metaphysical. The overall sonority is homogeneous, even if the first violin occasionally lets himself go a bit, or if the viola or cello sometimes sound a bit hollow. These details would be totally insignificant if there had been a bit more humor in the first quartets and more apparent shifts in emphasis, or if, on the other hand, the last quartets had been given a broader reading, as true musical and human adventures in several movements and not, as seems all too often, as a series of moments (in this context, the short, rustic scherzos of the 13th and 14th Quartets are totally successful).

We should not, however, totally disparage this still young ensemble. In a few more years, when they have refined their style and enlarged their range of colors, they may well give us as strong a set of the complete quartets as that of the Hungarian Quartet (EMI, mono) who they sometimes call to mind. To discover this Beethoven monument, an approach by periods may be preferable to a complete set: the greatest Quartets have often left their marks on just a part of the sixteen string quartets. By juxtaposing the subtle Budapest Quartet in the first six quartets (Sony), the virtuoso Alban Berg Quartet in Nos. 7 through 11 (EMI) and the splendid Melos Quartet in the famous and difficult last five quartets (Deutsche Grammophon), the enthusiast will more readily discover the immensity of Beethoven than by limiting himself to a homogeneous complete set, however good it is, which can by nature only be restrictive.

Vanbrugh Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The String Quartets
Vanbrugh Quartet
Intim Musik (8 separate CDs) IMCD 043 to 050.

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