Beethoven quartets calidore signum

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The Late Quartets
Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127 (1825)
Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826)
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130 (1825)
Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, Op. 133 (1825)
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825)
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826)
Calidore Quartet
rec. 2021-22, Gore Recital Hall, Russell Center for the Arts, University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Signum Classics SIGCD733 [3 CDs: 204]

The daring innovation and variety of these six quartets, all written between April 1824 and October 1826 never fail to astonish; even today, Beethoven’s wildest excursions, such as those in the Grosse Fuge, remain baffling, even impenetrable – but fascinating.

I recently reviewed the equivalent of this latest release from the Calidore Quartet, which was the same collection of Beethoven’s late quartets from the Dover Quartet on the Cedille label. Both include the Grosse Fuge and have exactly the same lay-out, on three discs; both are young, acclaimed American quartets. An embarras de richesses or an unfortunate clash of release schedules? Both, I suppose; the only difference is that the Dover’s volume was the final instalment in their survey whereas this is the first of the Calidore’s three to be issued over the next three years, so the overlap is not complete.

I refer you to that previous review for a brief discussion of what I look for in my own ideal performance of these quartets and am happy to report that the sound the Calidore make is what I like: not too sleek or polished but something a little tough and grainy. However, on playing the Maestoso introduction to No. 12, I also miss the thrum and thwack I want to hear in that succession of opening chords; they are a little too tame and civilised for me – and the repeat two minutes in is similarly too restrained. Odd, because the subsequent development is more aggressive. I am of course nit-picking, but such is the level of intonation, homogeneity and musicality of modern string quartets that the observation of such niceties provides the only criteria to establish a hierarchy of preference. The Adagio is lyrical, flowing and unhurried but with a deeply satisfying, underlying pulse which ensures that the music is always moving forward. The quirkiness of the central Andante con moto dance section is nicely brought out and the return to lyricism in the Adagio molto espressivo section deftly turned. The “heavenly length” of this movement – second in duration among the late quartets only to the famous Canzona of Op. 132 – never palls when played which such sensitivity. The final two movements are animated and energised and the Calidore’s playing brings out their joyous light-heartedness – not always the first quality one associates with this music but it is a veritable kaleidoscope containing every human emotion.

Having said that, there is no more melancholy opening than that of Op. 131 and the keening, bitter-sweet character the Calidore impart to it is deeply moving. Reserves of concentration are demanded of both the performers and the listener over nearly forty minutes of music without breaks between movements but such is the excellence of playing here that I do not find it a bind. The scurrying Presto is despatched with elan, the eccentric pizzicato outbursts boldly and humorously executed. The Allegro finale has plenty of bite.

No. 13 is similarly long and challenging – and of course would have been much more so had Beethoven, at the publisher’s behest, not substituted the Grosse Fuge with the oddly cheerful contradanse replacement finale but the Calidore adhere to Robert Simpson’s proposal that Beethoven’s intentions are best realised by playing all seven movements, with the new finale following the Grosse Fuge. They are completely in unison, their playing flawlessly coordinated, and captures beautifully the bipolar nature of the first movement, veering madly between mournful yearning and frantic elation. Like the new finale, the movements other than the Grosse Fuge and the Cavatina are relatively light-hearted, and the Calidore make the lilting folk dance alla tedesca go with an insouciant lilt and a swing which contrast so strongly with the soulful intensity of those two movements. I have in the past opined that too many groups play the Cavatina too fast for my taste and had that same reservation about the Dover’s rendering at just over six minutes. Here, the Calidore follow the example of such distinguished predecessors as the Busch, the Hungarian, the Medici and the Alban Berg quartets and take around seven minutes over it, which is right. It is, after all, a song, not a dirge, but still needs gravitas as well as momentum. I am told that the Grosse Fuge double fugue is “fiendishly difficult” to play; no wonder the audience at the premiere were shocked. I can only say that it is despatched here with great dexterity and confidence.

 I am never as taken by the first two movements of Op. 132 as I am by the Heiliger Dankgesang but I especially like the way the Calidore play the central passage of the second movement around 4:20, repeated at 6:11, where the lead violin plays arpeggios over a drone. That Molto Adagio Holy Thanksgiving never fails to move and astound, especially when played this sweetly and with such dedication; time stands still. It is surely the most beautiful music Beethoven ever wrote and is perfectly realised here. The spritely March and manic waltz are played with elan.

No. 16 is deceptively short and simple in comparison to the other four quartet; virtually half as long but at its heart lies another profound slow movement, played here with great poise, first with a minimum of vibrato but then, as the movement progresses, with application of more pulse in the long lines to signal intensified emotion. Moments in the last movement such as the sawing, grinding passage of dissonant chords four minutes in are genuinely disturbing, even frightening, and the raw playing of Calidore makes no effort to prettify or mitigate their impact – but the throwaway, pizzicato coda is delightfully casual.

Minor cavils concerning this tempo or that phrasing notwithstanding, I find it impossible to recommend these new accounts over those by the Dover Quartet or vice versa; both are deeply satisfying, impeccably recorded and representative of the gratifyingly high standard of quartet playing we may hear today from so many of today’s young artists.

Ralph Moore

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