Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sat, 02 Sep 2006

Beethoven String Quartets

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E flat Op 126 [33.43]
String Quartet in a minor Op 132 [41.16]
The Hagen Quartet
rec Nov 2003 [Op 132] and Mar 2004 [Op 127], Schloss Mondsee and Minnesangersaal, Wiesloch, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5705 [75.07]

A well-filled late Beethoven disc here. This is the sort of modern performance that will easily find a place on the collector’s shelves. The Hagen quartet (Lukas, Veronika and Clemens Hagen and Rainer Schmidt) have established such a reputation for seriousness that this music is eminently suitable for them. The recording quality is classic Deutsche Grammophon stuff, warm and spacious with each of the instrumental lines clearly defined within a whole of great sonic flavour. The opening of the finale of the Op 132 quartet creeps up on the listener, without giving a hint of the turbulence that will be very shortly unleashed. In both works the slow movements are far-and-away the most substantial and the Hagens play these with appropriate gravitas and substance, but without loosing sight of the melodic aspects also.

This whole nature of late Beethovenian thinking has been examined in endless detail elsewhere, and the works become no less surprising on repeated listenings. However, there is an aspect with which this writer would take issue in the conventional approach to this music. The word that is almost invariably used to describe the late quartets is “difficult”. These are supposedly “difficult” music to understand. Personally one thinks this un-helpful to anybody who is not familiar with this music. It is no more “difficult”, in terms of the enjoyment to be gained from the listening experience, than any of Mozart’s chamber works, than Poulenc’s or Messiaen’s song, indeed, than Handel’s Italian operas.

The listener who may be unfamiliar with late Beethoven, indeed who may be unfamiliar with the whole string quartet of even the whole chamber music genre should not shy away from a recording like this because of preconceived notions of incomprehensibility. This music just requires the listener to pay attention and to let Beethoven do the talking. It is beautiful stuff – far more enjoyable that much other Beethoven; one thinks of the over-vaunted and bombastic 9th symphony of the same period – and these performances are easily comparable to the great interpretations of the past.

© Peter Wells 2006

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