Classical CD Reviews

BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets – Borodin Quartet – Chandos box (8 CDs)

An exemplary recording celebrating a singular musical collective performing some of the finest quartet music ever written.

Published on February 7, 2010

BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets – Borodin Quartet – Chandos box (8 CDs)

BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets – Borodin Quartet – Chandos box CHAN 10553(8) (8 CDs), TT 551:10 ***** [Distr. by Naxos]:

The classical string quartet, created by Haydn and honed to gem-like perfection by Mozart in his final 10 quartets, was like malleable clay in Beethoven’s rough hands. The form as bequeathed by Beethoven’s teacher Haydn was robust and sophisticated, capable of unlimited expressiveness and a startling intimacy. But it required the skillful manipulation of the naturally reticent homogenous sound of two violins, a viola and a cello. The scarcity of excellent string quartets other than those written by the finest composers speaks to the difficulty the form imposes. Beethoven’s early quest to shout his musical self to the world created revolutionary works that burst upon a Europe undergoing its own titanic changes. As his deafness and cruel isolation silenced his world, his late quartets spoke a strange musical language of wordless thoughts emerging from organized stillness.

The set of six Op.18 quartets composed between 1798 and 1800 are essentially embryonic Beethoven. Their musical language still echoes Haydn but the young composer has widened their emotional palette and a shadowy unease foreign to the older master haunts these works. The Borodin Quartet plays the set with emotional restrain bordering on diffidence, emphasizing their classical roots, but they are never doctrinaire in their approach. The insistent strangeness that creeps into Beethoven’s music as early as this is allowed to seep through, enriching their performance with a nervous grittiness amongst the ubiquitous elegance.

It is in the great heroic middle quartets where the Borodin responds with their well-known technical proficiency. They take the revolutionary character of these works seriously. Here is a vast new world of expansive musical expressiveness, emotional depth and a kind of uneasy swagger that is Beethoven’s poignant mask in response to encroaching silence. The Borodin Quartet’s technical prowess is fully on display and is effective. Their playing has an earthy richness and musical coherence resulting from years of experience. Also evident is an instrumental smoothness that facilitates their distinctive glutinous sound. Those who prefer their Beethoven rougher and more plebian may quarrel with this, evidence that no single vision of these masterful quartets can possibly be sufficient.

As Beethoven withdrew into a silent world of musical abstraction his music became a spare landscape of plaintive melancholy beauty punctuated by shocked outbursts of pain and brittle humor. This unearthly music requires playing of elegant circumspection interspersed with petulance and coarse anger. The Borodin achieves this not through struggle – as the Emerson and Guarneri Quartets did on their fine recordings of these works – but by intellectual rigor that doesn’t subsume emotion so much as conquer it through stunning technique. They embrace the strange beauty that makes these late quartets so haunting to listen to. There are moments during their traversal of these final quartets when the sheer nakedness of Beethoven’s music makes us feel as if we were communing directly with the composer. Here is playing of vigor and sympathy rare in its intelligence and strength. This set is an exemplary recording that celebrates a singular musical collective performing some of the finest music ever written.

The Chandos engineers have produced superbly lifelike sound, intimate and softly glowing in a natural space. The strings of the quartet are crisp and clear allowing this often complex music to remain focused and accessible.

- – Mike Birman




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