Posted by Ciaran Cronin on December 16, 2014, 10:13 am
I find this "review" quite incomprehensible in its ignorant presumption. One can respectfully differ over the merits of different performances of much-recorded repertoire. Although I have not heard the Quartetto Italiano's recording of Beethoven's late quartets in the reissue under review, I have been listening to the LPs for decades, most recently over the past week. Every time I return to these recordings I am astounded by the flawless musicianship, breathtaking precision and profundity and humanity of vision of these superb performances. To my way of hearing, there is not a single weak performance in the complete set, and cumulatively they constitute one of the most satisfying cycles ever recorded (my main points of comparison being the cycles of the Prazák Quartet, another particular favourite and equally superb in its own way, the Talich Quartet and the Gewandhaus-Quartett). In all the hundreds of times I have listened to these performances, I have never noticed any moments of self-indulgence, such as wallowing in sheer beauty of sound (though the Quartetto Italiano undoubtedly produced an extraordinarily refined and beautiful sound) or technical brilliance (which they also possessed in abundance) for its own sake and not in the service of the music. And unless my ears have been deceiving me all these years, these were also technically speaking among the most successful quartet recordings of the analogue era, captured in a near ideal studio acoustic that allows the instruments to breath individually and collectively while placing them in a clearly-defined, sufficiently wide and deep sound-stage. |
All of this is to some extent a matter of taste and one can differ as to what one regards as a satisfying performance of pretty much any music, or even what one regards as a technically satisfying recording. What strike me as ignorant and presumptuous, however, are some of the judgements the reviewer permits himself about Beethoven and his music. He describes the Italians as making a "Mediterranean sound ... so sophisticated and warm; so unlike Beethoven the man and musician." Apart from being grammatically suspect -- presumably he means that the Italian's sound would have been uncongenial to Beethoven or that it is somehow inappropriate to his music -- who is to say what kind of sound "the man and musician" would have preferred or what is or is not appropriate to his music? Beethoven was famously stone deaf by the time he composed the late quartets, a fact which might reasonably be construed as allowing performers very wide latitude as to how they perform his music. That his late quartets in particular are open to a wide variety of approaches is borne out, for example, by some very successful performances of individual quartets by string orchestras (such as the recent recording of Op. 135 by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta), which naturally reveal expressive possibilities in the music that a quartet cannot.
To judge by his silly description of Beethoven as "a lion" and his stated preference for the middle period quartets, the reviewer seems to be prisoner of a one-sided "heroic" vision of the composer. The fact that most of the late quartets break with the four-movement model established by Haydn and Mozart with its associated dramatic profile inevitably means that they are more episodic and in that sense more structurally diffuse. However, breaking with this structural corset, if you will, clearly also liberated Beethoven to explore new expressive possibilities of his musical language and enabled him to produce some of his most agonizingly beautiful (Cavatina from Op. 130, "Heiliger Dankgesang" from Op. 132) and, let it be said, violently dramatic ("Große Fuge") music. And, at risk of falling victim to clichés myself, this is surely also some of the most "forward-looking" music ever composed. Whereas the early and middle-period quartets (each a masterpiece in its own right) are clearly children of their time, what strikes me as extraordinary about the late quartets -- at least whenever I hear them in such accomplished performances as those of the Quartetto Italiano -- is that they could have been composed yesterday, and had they been they would have just claim to be recognized as major contributions to contemporary music (albeit ones that employed a somewhat conservative harmonic language). Anyone who so utterly fails to appreciate the inherent qualities of this music has no business reviewing performances of it and should stick to such worthy endeavours as reviewing reissues of "Sandy" Gibson's recordings of Sibelius.