It has been a labor of love for me these last few days to listen to various other recordings of the Beethoven Late Quartets (including Op. 95, the ‘Serioso’) in comparison to this really quite remarkable set from the Takács Quartet. There are, of course, differing approaches to these protean quartets and who is to say which is correct? There are the big smooth approaches like those of the Guarneris and the beloved Quartetto Italianos, the ultra-clean and slightly clinical approaches like those of the Bergs and the Emersons (and, possibly, the Vermeers whose new set of the Bartóks is sitting there on my desk staring at me, daring me to open them), and the hell-bent-for-leather performances like those of the Cleveland and the new one by the Gewandhaus (which I strongly recommend). The Takács seem to be in a category all their own, with some features of all the above-mentioned groups, but with very much their own take on these works. Their playing is extremely subtle, but I don’t use that term to mean mannered, reticent or timid. Rather, they are full-steam-ahead where it matters — just listen to the opening chords of the Op. 127 which, as it happens, is the first track on CD 1 — nothing backward about that; in fact, those chords are a bit raw and certainly quite powerful (just as I imagine Beethoven intended them). But in the slower parts of that very same movement there is such dynamic variation and wide variety of expression — fitting, isn’t it, for these wildly variable works? — that one gasps at the beauty and effectiveness of it all. I give full credit to first violinist Edward Dusinberre whose tone has infinite variety, is never virtuosic in the show-offy sense, is always of a piece with the sound of his colleagues and yet is clearly the primus inter pares. Dusinberre may indeed be the most musical quartet violinist I’ve ever encountered — well, that’s too broad a statement, but you get some idea of what my reaction to his playing is. I’m a bear when it comes to intonation and this quartet is almost always completely in tune with each other, not something one can say about some (the recently disbanded Lindsays, say). Their tone is slightly on the dry side generally although they can put plenty of juice in their tone when necessary. In this sense they remind me a bit of the old Busch Quartet recordings, particularly in these late quartets.
The slow movements of these quartets — which, by the way, I tend to think of as a huge mega-quartet, not a dismissable idea considering how Beethoven reused motifs and took movements and moved them around from one quartet to another as the impulse struck him — are simply ravishing. Just listen to the slow movement, the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, of the Op. 132. It literally brought tears to my eyes. Or the Lento assai of the Op. 135.
The Op. 130 is arranged so that the ‘Grosse Fuge’ is in place of the replacement fourth movement, which then follows. If you prefer Beethoven’s notion to put a simple movement in fourth position, you can simply program out the ‘Grosse Fuge.’ Personally, I prefer the ‘Grosse Fuge’ to be included as the finale of the Op. 130, so it tickled me to have it arranged this way. And what a performance of the ‘Grosse Fuge’ this is! It is played with ferocity and real edge — some folks might balk at that, I suppose — that conveys the almost superhuman struggle this movement requires. Surely that’s what Beethoven intended, don’t you think? Yet there are lyrically tender moments, too, in the meno mosso e moderato sections.
I probably would have to be forced at gunpoint to give up any of my CDs of various quartets’ performances of the late quartets, but at this moment, at least, I think I’d hold the Takács closest to my breast and relinquish it last.
3 CDs TT=220mins
-Scott Morrison, amazon.com