Review by Beagle February 1, 2009 (12 of 12 found this review helpful)
Sound Engineer Brad Michel has triumphed over the pitfalls inherent in venue, microphone placement, digital technology and interpersonal politics… and has given the world a warm but detailed recording of four enthusiastic master musicians with audible space around them – quite an improvement over Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 59 No's 1-3 "Razumovsky" - Tokyo String Quartet. Perhaps the change of venue, from Skywalker Studio near San Francisco to The Academy of Arts & Letters in New York, has contributed to the increased ‘humanity’ of the Tokyo Quartet’s second SACD issue. The violins are vocal but not yelping, the viola is obviously busy doing its thing back there, and the cello delivers a steady groundswell. Bravo Brad Michel (and Assistant Engineer Sara Clerk)! Digital purists take note: the disappointing Op. 59 disc was recorded in DSD, the very successful current disc was NOT.
Through all the dramatic ups and lyric downs of Opus 74 and 95, the TQ succeed in infusing this disc with unstinting spirit and controlled energy. This is a ‘classic’ performance, in that their phrasing and rhythms are free of quirkiness and their tempos are in the middle of a spectrum which runs from break-neck to leisurely .
This recording has resolved all the tensions implicit in the earlier Op. 59 discs: the sound is in a word, ‘luscious’; the playing both athletic and sensitive. I will reserve no half-stars. My one token quibble is that there is a ghostlike snippet of the second movement at the beginning of track-seven, just before the third movement itself begins: an editing oversight on an otherwise excellent offering from the justly famous Tokyo.
Once again, as with the recent Fry Street issue, a beautiful recording has sent me off to re-think music which I had begun to take for granted. If you are interested, read on; if not, just order the disc and enjoy!
It would be churlish to complain about the short duration of this disc: 52’33”; it is something of a tradition to pair Opp. 74 and 95 on a disc. The two works appear to form a natural pairing, being written within a year of one another, yet separated from the bracketing Op. 59 and the Late Quartets by seven or eight years. Together they have been referred to as ‘Late Middle’ and ‘Middle Period proper’ Beethoven. –But this is an unnatural joining of two starkly different works; if anything their combination forms a musical corollary to Milton’s ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. Between 74 and 95 lies a Great Divide, a defining moment in Ludwig’s life and work. If one graphs the number of Beethoven’s works per year, one beholds a mountain of production in the decade before 1810 – then a vast chasm until 1816; Opp. 74 and 95 hang on the edge of the abyss. Through the jumble of anecdote and apocrypha which encrusts the centre of Beethoven’s history, one can still discern some facts:
(1) Beethoven was famous but he was not rich. Whether in earnest or as a ruse, he applied for a salaried position in Kassel, which prompted several noble enthusiasts to pool their resources into an annuity, the only condition being that Beethoven remain in Wien – but with the obvious expectation of more grand works from Maestro’s pen. That unstated expectation was not quite satisfied, nor were the patrons regular in their contributions. Nonetheless Beethoven enjoyed the aura of financial security for the first (and only) time in his life.
(2) Aged 39 and financially secure, he ordered a birth certificate from Bonn: a prerequisite for marriage in Wien; but what about the other prerequisite for marriage? Although Ludwig may have had at least one ‘dangerous liaison’ earlier, his reveries of married life would doubtless have been of a young, single woman. Perhaps wealthy families competed to send their most eligible daughters to Ludwig – but for music lessons. What better advertisement of marriage stock than “The great Beethoven praises her clavier playing and her voice”? That would draw the attention of cultured, i.e. wealthy, suitors. But it also raised sanguine hopes in the lovelorn Maestro. If prurient-minded musicologists can be trusted, the jeune femme of the hour was named Therèse or Tereza Malfatti (the ambiguous given-name mirrors Beethoven’s own Louis / Ludwig bilingualism). The identity of the young woman is quite irrelevant, likewise the apocryphal tale of Ludwig getting piss-drunk when he called upon his prospective in-laws; the telling point is, predictably, her family utterly rejected the offer.
OP. 74: LUDWIG IN LOVE
“HENCE, loathed Melancholy…
Find out some uncouth cell
Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings…
But come, thou Goddess fair and free…” –Milton, ‘Allegro’
There is a lot of nervous energy and unresolved tension in the three Op. 59 quartets – but scarcely any here; the dreamy Eb key and Slow-Slow-Fast-Slow architecture are eminently civilised. The nickname ‘Harfenquartett’ is not from Beethoven himself, but the music he penned certainly lives up to it: the opening Allegro is elegant and delightfully sprinkled with pizzicati and arpeggio scales (all rendered very palpable here by the Tokyo and their Engineers). Such effects were not unknown in quartets, but this opening movement scarcely sounds like a quartet with all its instrumental dazzle. It is very beautiful; a bouquet-in-hand presented by a suitor with heart-on-sleeve. Ludwig has not merely bathed and dressed for society, he has transformed himself into a kinder, gentler Beethoven. One can feel this transformation in what Beethoven does – or rather doesn’t do – with the sonata-form here. The rules say that the sonata will leave its tonic key and modulate through some predictable (perhaps a few unpredictable) related keys. But Beethoven moves from Eb into C like a gentleman dressed for a social visit, who steps out of his house but then fails to continue on down the Strasse, hovering instead just behind the garden-gate, then goes back indoors. Beethoven is being far too polite, eschewing tension and dialectic, just ‘making nice’. He does it very well, Beethoven on his best-behaviour is very seductive.
But he wasn’t simplistic: “[The Allegro is] just as difficult to perform as its wondrous intricacies are to follow.... That this quartet is difficult to perform scarcely needs to be mentioned.” That was what the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung had to say about Opus 74 in 1811. The writer expresses the discomfort of a musical audience which was not content to walk home humming the tune, but which expected to pick up the score and play it later with friends. Beethoven deserves much credit and blame for shifting the paradigm from sitting-room to concert-hall by writing music which only the better professionals could imagine playing. Surrounded by electronics, we don’t feel their pain – but Beethoven’s public lost their iPods when music effectively departed from the private home. By the same gesture, Beethoven was instrumental in creating the professional quartet. Wolfgang had had himself, Haydn, Dittersdorf and Vanhal at hand to première quartets, but now Beethoven and the Schuppanzigh-Quartett  share a symbiotic existence. It takes an Ignaz Schuppanzigh or a Martin Beaver  to play the virtuoso pyrotechnics in this first movement’s Coda.
Beethoven bows and curtsies to all the rules of civilised music in this work, including the necessary ‘after-dinner joke’ of the third movement scherzo. One simply cannot have four consecutive slow movements and expect to keep an audience; like the surprise in Haydn’s ‘Surprise Symphony’, the obligatory fast movement will wake-up the snorers. So what’s the joke?
“A composer walks into a bar one day, orders a beer and starts moaning ‘Was hab’ ich für dem schnellen Satz?’ He digs into his pockets for the sketchbook with the quartet he’s writing in it – and out come a bunch of counterpoint exercises he’s set for his student. (The funny thing is, this student is really an Archduke  who fancies himself to be a crackerjack cellist – but what’s more, this Archie thinks he might compose a bit too, if only he could get the hang of it – so he is paying the composer to teach him.) Well, the composer looks at the banal student fugues for a moment, mutters ‘Gott Verdamt!’ – and starts laughing….”
And so the Presto goes, opening with no-brainer counterpoint, then adding the other voices in text-book order – but that’s not all of the joke. There’s more: the picture Ludwig paints is of a thunderstorm, a brief nuisance which punctuates an otherwise lovely day in the country… sound familiar? This is the same year in which he writes the Pastoral Symphony with its ‘Gewitter. Sturm’. The Op. 74 Donner-und-Blitzen presto drenches two pretty trio sections three times before it rolls off over the horizon “roaring through its material in contrapuntal inversion – a belly-laugh at all pedants, and a belly-laugh at the composer himself”, as Joseph Kerman puts it.
With the obligatory fast movement in place, Beethoven is again free to ladle out on the charm in the fourth movement with a set of variations back in the dreamy key of Eb (this is like a four-course meal with three courses of dessert!). –Is it true, as Kerman suggests, that there is an echo of ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ in the closing Coda?
* * *
The contrast of the third movement to the placid movements which surround it (and likewise its inner Presto-Trio conflict) reminds us of something very essential about Beethoven: his subject is contrasts. The visual artists of the time were pushing away from evenly illuminated scenes into ‘chiaroscuro’ where high-contrast lights and darks emphasise a brutal third-dimension. The Romantics were turning on their Enlightenment elders and saying ‘It’s not all beer and skittles…’. There is very little bold relief in Op. 74, all but the Presto is as bright and silky as the costumes of nobility painted by Gainsborough and Fragonard half a century before. By contrast… Op. 95 is a tight machine, a brief but dense 20 minutes with no space for classical niceties; bridge sections are swept away by brutal key modulations, wedging light against dark…. Welcome to Late Beethoven!
OP. 95: BEETHOVEN ON THE ROCKS
“HENCE, vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred!
How little you bested
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toys! …
But, hail! thou Goddess sage and holy!
Hail, divinest Melancholy!” –Milton, ‘Il Penseroso’
Or as Detective Charlie Chan said to Number-one Son: “Old love like last year’s bird-nest”. Being jilted hath privileges: you can divest yourself of ill-fitting fashions, put on your favourite old peasant blouse, have a beer and utter some lusty expletives to the empty room. With the ‘immortal belovèd’ now a bad memory, Mr Nice reverts to the Ur-Beethoven whole-heartedly, “Let’s get serious” he says, and writes ‘Quartett serioso’ at the top of the sheet . The minor key and Fast-Slow-Fast-Slow architecture of the Serioso cock a snook at polite society; “Nota bene: the quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public,” Beethoven warned his conductor-friend George Smart. If its staccato opening motif did not send the ladies and gentlemen scurrying for their snuff-boxes, then its near-note modulations (F-Gb-G#…) might eventually drive them out into the night air to clear their heads. What a pity that we lack their refinement, our ears are too jaded to truly appreciate the iconoclasm of this ‘damn you all’ music-for-art’s-sake. Nonetheless, I still get a good frisson of goose-bumps from Beaver and Ikeda’s fortissimo upper strings.
A glance at the first few pages of the score graphically illustrates the chiaroscuro of the first movement: dark staves of eighth- and sixteenth-notes alternating with bright airy half- and quarter-note sections http://www.mutopiaproject.org/collections/mozstrq/op10.pdf. The latter possess moments of lyric beauty but it is welded to the violence of the former, like the ribbons of soft and brittle steel which weave strength and beauty into a damascene sword. At the end of the coda Beethoven works a bit of magic which is my favourite transition between movements: all in a few heartbeats, Clive Greensmith’s low cello line draws together all the ferocious tension into itself, and says “Enough!”...
...And then with its dying echo still in our minds, the same calm cello sound steps down into an entirely different world. Its descending lyric line has a questioning inflection, as if asking “Why?” or “If only…”. After such a violent first movement, the melancholy of the second offers a welcome respite and brings to my mind Dürer’s illustration of Melanchoia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BCrer_Melancholia_I.jpg.
Unlike the third movement of Op. 74, the ‘scherzo’ of Op. 95 is no joke. Its staccato opening motif is urgent  and the lyric material which with it alternates has its own pained tension. And then, the final movement dances fitfully with the same minor-key tension, now piano, now forte but with a painful limp – until a sudden tarantella sprint to the end – which rings utterly false! Is this, like the trick ending of Haydn’s ‘Ein musikalischer Scherz’, the joke? No, there is no music-room of nobility to befuddle, just Beethoven; the last few bars of The Serious makes a strange but private statement of… what?
 Op. 74: New Budapest 30:22, Amadeus 30:42, Végh-1952 30:55, Tokyo 31:01, Juilliard 32:20, Végh-1973 32:47, Prazak 34:46. The laggards here, the Prazákovo, take 9:07 to play the Presto movement, whereas the others run between 5 and 6 minutes;
Op. 95: Végh-1952 19:50, Amadeus 20:42, Végh-1972 72 20:44, New Budapest 20:49, Juilliard 21:21, Tokyo 21:23, Párkányí 22:16. I believe there is a lot of latitude here for tempo; this music has a lot of sweetness which can be ‘milked’ by a thoughtful pace. I suspect the Végh, with a reputation for slow sweetness, were ‘under the gun’ to fit music on a platter in 1952; they certainly played differently in 1972-73.
 Schuppanzigh’s experiment, a full-time professional quartet, neither succeeded or failed. They began as Lichnowsky’s private quartet in 1798-1802, functioned briefly without a patron 1804-08, but were Rozumovsky’s private quartet when they premiered these two works.
 Martin is not only a fellow-Canadian but a musician I have had the privilege of hearing live many times in the last two decades. I am personally pleased to hear him shine on this SACD.
 Erzerzog Rudolph, who gets his own Piano Trio, Op. 97, in the following year.
 In the first decade of the 19th century, Ludwig alone employs the quartet for serious art; the rest is all quatuor brillante frippery from Boccherini, Rode, Romberg, Spohr and an easy dozen other crowd-pleasers who treated the form as a low-budget concerto, usually for show-casing their own virtuoso fiddling against a pick-up trio.
 Unfortunately I never fail to hear its motif as the nonsense rhyme “Call the Doctor! Call the Nurse! Call the Lady with the alligator purse!’, an affliction akin to hearing Borodin’s quartet as “Stranger in Paradise” – and now I’ve infected you with it….
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