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Reviews: Beethoven: String Quartets Opp. 18 No. 4, 130 & 133 - Fry Street Quartet

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Reviews: 5

Site review by Geohominid November 14, 2008
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Site review by Polly Nomial January 6, 2009
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Site review by Southern SACD Fan April 30, 2009
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What can I say that has not already been said?

This is a georgeous disk. Beethoven string quartets can be dry - I have several disks at home that rarely get aired.

The playing form the Fry Street Quartet is vigorous and tuneful. They have georgeous string tone. The Isomike recording system seems to work very well too, with clear but not obtrusive sound.

This disk is a happy combination of the genius of Bethoven, the musical skills of the Fry Street Quartet and the technical ability of the Isomike team. The final result seems to be greater than the sum of the parts, isn't that always a sign of good music making?

Review by Beagle December 16, 2008 (10 of 14 found this review helpful)
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Sufferers of the present Sub-prime Mortgage Meltdown may find fellowship with Ludwig Beethoven who shivered, stinting on fuel during the economic downturn of 1825 – as he penned Das Grosse Fuge. He laboured on despite failing health, so that he would not have to dip into his bank shares but could leave them intact as an inheritance for his ne’er-do-well nephew.

There has been an interesting discussion in the Forum about the positions of the musicians in the sound image captured on this disc. I confess at moments I have been persuaded that there was a problem, but after several experiments I begin to doubt my doubts: I just compared this disc with disc one of FSQCD3 – through headphones. When the cello is fortissimo, it is heard as if from all across the soundstage, likewise with the first violin; I have not detected a complete reversal of positions. As my cellist wife said (rather emphatically), “I can’t be bothered sitting with my eyes closed, trying to figure out where the violinist is – If they are playing well, who cares?!”

And they ARE playing well! I began my first review of the FSQ by quoting Shakespeare’s “O Brave new world…”; there is no better way to begin this present review than to complete Miranda’s exultation: “… that has such people in’t”. Such people being Anne Francis on ‘cello, Russell Fallstad on viola and Rebecca McFaul on second violin – now joined by William Fedkenheuer, their new primarius. I confess to mental weakness in the presence of ‘cello music – I married a ‘cellist in a moment of weakness (no regrets) – and so I derive much pleasure from Anne’s sonorous presence and total control, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Russell’s viola astonishes me perhaps even more, since this ill-fated instrument – which looks like an overfed violin but which is in fact an anorexic ‘cello – is more often seen than heard. To his eternal credit Russell has not suffered his candle to be hidden under the proverbial bushel basket, his viola is audible! The upper voices may be due some credit for that; like well-trained circus cats they keep their treble claws sheathed (unless provoked). Listening to this latest disc I frequently encounter moments of beautiful collaboration between the inner voices or between the lower voices, on equal terms with the others. The individual members of the FSQ possess several strengths, e.g. technical control, musicality and commitment; collectively they astonish with their ensemble and prove themselves innocent of Sir Neville Cardus’ charge: “Most string quartets have a basement and an attic, and the lift is not working.”. Beethoven has been played beautifully before, but never with such transparent clarity.

Every change in personnel in a quartet creates a new quartet; this disc is the first discography for ‘FSQ III’ with Fedkenheuer in first chair. And so one wonders what new alchemy has been triggered by a change of ‘leader’ – I use quotation marks because the FSQ sounds like a democracy, not a monarchy. Nonetheless a new leader may indeed lead off in a new direction, or perhaps confirm and lead forward down a previous trajectory. I am guessing that the latter is the case here, and that Will has added his own personal fire to the FSQ’s growing enthusiasm for Beethoven. Why Beethoven? Perhaps because Beethoven, like the Fry Streeters, lives and breathes music. Of the present disc Anne says, “this one is fun”… yes, the Grosse Fuge is their idea of fun (mine too).Their mania expressed itself this October in a complete quartet cycle live in Logan, Utah....

–And now they have committed to a complete cycle on SACD! Disc one of FSQCD3 becomes the first installment. On it, Op. 18/5 gives us Beethoven’s answer to Mozart’s Haydn-Quartett no. 5 – of which Beethoven said, “That's what I call a work!”; its ‘Malinconia’ finale is the high point of the early quartets. And on the same disc they fast-forwarded to Op. 132 with the sad-beautiful ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’. Were there logic in awards, this disc would have won Disc-of-the-Year, Diapason D’Or and Penguin Roseates. We now have the second installment to this wonderful cycle, again with an early and a late quartet – forcing us once again to open our minds to the total phenomenon of Beethoven’s career. The listener must leap back and forth between two essentially different worlds, that of a young Beethoven who shares more with Haydn than with his future self, and that of the maestro who stands alone with Bach. My own age puts me more in tune with the older Beethoven, and so I am amazed when musicians in their late twenties can put themselves into the soul of the curmudgeon of 1825, as well as into their compeer of 1800. In Op. 18 we witness the younger's conquest of the quartet form; in the late quartets we tag along as the elder pushes the genre ‘to boldly go where no-one has gone before’.

This disc sent me off to several weeks of listening, thinking and reading*. Speaking of Beethoven, the great Tovey said: “this essay deals with form, and therefore does not profess to discuss emotional contents.”; being no Tovey, I experience music as emotion first, and form as a distant second. I like to know the Beethoven of the moment and to employ that as a key to that moment’s music; below in condensed form is some of what I have discovered.

Subject: Young Beethoven

Ludwig (‘Louis’ to his friends) did not arrive in Wien ready to write string quartets. He arrived in 1792 more as a student than a composer, and as a performing pianist with a knack for improvising – it was that latter gift which moved his Bonn friend, young Count Waldstein, to prophesy that Beethoven would become the vehicle of Mozart’s muse through the channeling of Haydn. In addition to an improvisatorial bent, young Beethoven showed a natural affinity for counterpoint – counterpoint in the sense of distributing the lyric line among voices (even when the voices were all contained within the pianist’s grasp). That is the Ludwig “von” Beethoven who thrust himself upon the notice of the aristocracy, and from whom Count Apponyi, noble patron of string quartets, almost immediately commissioned a set of quartets – and on the most generous of terms, especially for a composer who’d never written in the genre. Although it is hard to imagine Ludwig ever doubting his own genius, he obviously did hesitate to march into this genre in competition with the likes of Haydn, who in 1793 had just presented Count Apponyi with his magnificent Opus 74 quartets. Beethoven dithered, demurred and finally snubbed Apponyi’s commission.

It may be illuminating to keep in mind that Beethoven’s hero was Napoléon, and to view Beethoven’s entry into musical society as a brilliant strategy of conquest. Young Beethoven deployed his most seasoned troops, avoiding the genre heights still held by Haydn and Mozart but wowing the nobles with what he did best: piano sonatas, piano trios, piano concertos, piano variations – plus some perhaps regrettable works for winds and some out-of-fashion string trios. The latter were no stepping-stone to string quartets, being less of a ‘dialogue of friends’ than, in J. Kerman’s words, ‘a simple-minded duet’ with viola tossed in for harmonic back-up. Very likely the string trios were what some of the old-fashioned aristocrats fancied with their evening schnapps.

Ludwig didn’t assigned opus numbers to just anything he wrote, and left lots of early compositions “WoO”; nonetheless the numbered opera clicked all the way up to 18 before Ludwig launched his assault upon the high ground of The Quartet. He was 27 years-old and relatively established in Viennese society with a horse and servant. Like Mozart at the same age, he put other projects aside and devoted several years of intensive work to the demanding genre’s conquest. Mozart proved himself with a single stroke to be Haydn’s peer, with his set of six quartets dedicated to the master; Beethoven’s strategy appears to have been more cautious, i.e. to establish a beach-head in the territory, not to out-haydn Haydn or ravish Mozart’s muse. Quartets did not flow from Ludwig’s pen as fluidly as the Haydn-Quartetten had from the plume of young Wolfgang. Beethoven laboured from 1798 until 1800 on the six works in Opus 18; his sketchbooks show that it was hard work, plowing the same ground over and over like a peasant with rocky soil. –And then the set of six languished at the publisher’s until 1801 before being published in two installments. The engraving of the music gave Beethoven much to complain about, with every correction of printer’s errors introducing yet more errors (and presumably some of those errors persist in modern editions). The set entered the market against formidable competition: Pleyel had just published ‘Collection complette des quatuors d’Haydn’ (dedicated to Premier Consul Bonaparte!). Beethoven’s first quartets are no Haydn-Quartetten; they are good quartets with very few surprises. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are a slightly non-standard in their component movements but nothing is without precedent. In No. 5 Ludwig exerted himself in the theme-and-variations form but leaned upon Mozart for the solution. Most of this music risks nothing. Nonetheless, it is very competent wielding of four voices towards a single melodic end, quite a technical advance for the improvisatory pianist from backwater Bonn. It was, so to speak, from this technical beach-head that Beethoven launched his successful assault upon the symphonic world over the next two years, culminating in the Eroica in 1803.

Opus 18 No. 4 has the modest distinction of being apparently the last of the six written, but it is not the ultimate statement of his new-found skills. There is here perhaps a weariness with the genre after two years and a “Git ‘er done” urge to wrap up the set of six (other larger forms were no doubt itching in Beethoven’s brain, begging to be written down). The first movement merely plays at being serious and builds its sonata from simple motifs; the second movement moves happily along like a round sung by friends; the third movement minuet echoes the first but in 3/4 time; the finale is classic fast-slow-fast prestissimo, with a simple coda to tie it all up. The conventional motifs, together with a lack of sketches for this quartet, suggest a precocious piece of juvenilia cobbled together with new bits, in order to finish the set and get on to… the Eroica? With the publication of Opus 18, Beethoven ceases to be ‘early Beethoven’. Although we think of the ‘late Beethoven’ as the deaf misanthrope, it was in 1801 that he wrote to a good friend, “For the past three years my hearing has been growing constantly weaker…. For two years now I have ceased to attend any social function for I cannot bring myself to tell people, ‘I am deaf.’” Here already, at age twenty-seven, is Beethoven’s private tragedy – but we cannot hear it in his music….

PERFORMANCES I have eight recordings of this quartet, three of them on super-audio! The Végh Quartet’s 1973 performance is remarkably sweet, and a good touchstone for serious collectors. The Párkányí and Fine Arts SACDs are both recommendable, although the latter’s venue is monastic and echoing; I find the Prázák's playing too workmanlike and the disc's sound harsh. The present FSQ recording is not merely good acoustically, it is refreshingly ‘spirited’: it breathes youthful energy into unproblematic works.

* * *

Counter-Subject: Late Ludwig

When Beethoven arrived in Wien he presented himself to Haydn as a student, but the relationship was apparently uncomfortable for teacher and student. Haydn praised the younger Mozart but he failed to detect Wolfgang’s genius in young Ludwig. The teacher with whom Beethoven did bond was crusty old Albrechtsberger, the codifier of counterpoint. The old man and the youngster shared a mania for fugal writing, an enthusiasm Beethoven maintained to his death. He put fugues in the piano sonatas, in the Diabelli Variations, in masses etc… the Ninth Symphony has fugue, fugatto and double fugues from start to end.

–Of which symphony Ludwig Spohr said “It is true that there are people who imagine they can understand them, and in their pleasure at the claim, rank them far above his earlier masterpieces. But I am not of their number and freely confess that I have never been able to relish the last works of Beethoven. Yes, I must even reckon the much admired Ninth Symphony among these, the three first movements of which seem to me, despite some solitary flashes of genius, worse than all the eight previous symphonies. The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.”
–To which after a lengthy pause, George Bernard Shaw replied, “Why should I be asked to listen to the intentional intellectualities, profundities, theatrical fits and starts, and wayward caprices of self-conscious genius which make up those features of the middle period Beethovenism of which we all have to speak so seriously, when I much prefer these beautiful, simple, straightforward, unpretentious, perfectly intelligible posthumous quartets?"

The original Op. 130 – the ‘Ur-Quartett’ – is mercurial in its mood changes, and one can get lost. The first movement’s rapid alternation between moody adagio and rattling allegro 16th-notes has led more than one listener to doubt the composer’s sanity. I have evolved my own mnemonic, ‘my own invention’ as the White Knight says, which helps me navigate this long, six-movement work:
* I. Adagio: It’s early morning and Ludwig is gathering his thoughts, which are melancholy – Allegro: some damned busy-body bursts in, all chatter and annoyance…. This happens several times, adagio – allegro….
* II. Presto: A brisk walk, maybe a good canter on a borrowed horse, restores mental equilibrium.
* III. Andante: Back home, a bite of Mittagessen raises the blood sugar and the mood; sit down and pen a few bars of some nice music, light but why not? Life isn’t so bad.
* IV. Tadesca: Feeling sociable, take up that invitation to the dance and waltz around (well, Teutsche around; same thing) with a friend, a beautiful young friend.
* V. Cavatina: After the dance, an emotional conversation in the shadows; it’s the same old story, she says ‘Can’t we just be friends?’.
* VI. Overtura: Home, alone, can’t sleep. Allegro molto: Angry thoughts. Meno mosso: remorse for anger. Allegro molto, allegro: remorse and anger contend, then merge into acceptance.

Ludwig’s friend and sometime caregiver Anton Schindler called the original Finale of Op. 130 “an Anachronismus which belongs properly to those dark ages when the art of tonal combination was still determined by mathematical calculation”. But as Beethoven himself stated, “To make a fugue requires no particular skill. In my student days I made dozens of them. But the fancy also wishes to exert its privileges, and today a new and really poetical element must be introduced into the old and traditional form.” A fugue in a quartet is no more remarkable than a scherzo; Haydn and Mozart infused their better quartets with fugal movements – but Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a remarkable fugue, for so he intended it. It was not so much Ludwig’s Schwanengesang to the contemporary world as his reply to his colleague, J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue. To all of Bach’s fugal devices, Beethoven adds his own fugue-of-keys.

Das Grosse Fuge is not frightfully complex, really. Pianist Harold Bauer who played it many times as a piano transcription, calls it “a glorified polka-scherzo”. Although it juxtaposes vehement energy with whispered timidity, there is nothing illogical in its structure: it follows strict fugal logic. The opening Overtura lays out a blueprint for what is to follow: stern Allegro and melancholy Meno mosso (‘less moving’). With startling effect the Fugue on the First Subject commences: a forceful two-note motif beats out an insistent rhythm, starting in the first violin but passing to the other instruments in turn – 125 bars of Fortissimo punctuated with Sforzando and FFF! –Suddenly all goes pianissimo… we are in the Meno mosso which sighs with a lilting four-note motif (introduced earlier but submerged beneath the two-note motif). Then the Fugue on the Second Subject repeats the allegro-meno mosso pattern (but with voices reversed); beautiful trilling passages begin to appear. And finally, with an overlay of sonata-form resolution, a third fast-slow-fast section marries and interbreeds the two subjects for hybrid vigour. --But this is not a happy ending, just an end; Beethoven allows the music no more satisfaction than life has allowed its composer. Its emotional vacuum is understandable when one recalls that all its storm-and-stress comes right after the bitter-sweetness of the Cavatina – that single movement whose very mention would bring tears to Beethoven’s eyes. So much emotion was invested in the Thirteenth Quartet that he called it the ‘Liebquartett’, the dear quartet.

By the mid-1820s the public were becoming less keen on Beethoven’s latest works, were perhaps tired of Beethoven entirely and more interested in… Rossini? When the Shuppanzigh Quartet premièred this Thirteenth Quartet, the composer uncharacteristically waited nearby in a tavern to hear how it went. After the performance his friend the second violinist, Karl Holz, found him there and reported that the audience liked the second and fourth movements. –“Cattle! Asses!” was his response.

Beethoven intended this Fugue-of-fugues to be the last movement of the last quartet in a set of three commissioned by Prince Galitzin: the dimensions and complexity of the Grosse Fuge imply that he intended it to be his final musical statement, his last hurrah. To say that the Maestro intended it to be thus is no trivial matter: Ludwig did what Ludwig wanted to do, to the extent that no self-respecting person wished to be seen in public with him. It therefore is a shock to see Beethoven bend to friends’ and publisher’s blandishments. Publisher Artaria and a small circle of hangers-on had Beethoven’s current well-being foremost in mind, his eternal genius less so. Maestro’s stipends from nobility had been depleted; poverty and ill health could only be kept at bay with publisher’s ducats. Financial considerations were gently pressed as a gun to his head: publish it this way or perish it that way. Honour was salved, albeit posthumously, by issuing the Fugue as a ‘Seventeenth Quartet’. And the kinder, gentler replacement Finale which Beethoven was compelled to write, that was penned at his brother’s house while he suffered from abdominal pains which, with the help of contemporary medical science, would kill him in four months. The revised Thirteenth Quartet was premièred again by the Shuppanzigh – after Beethoven’s death.

In this era of recorded music, every quartet with a contract to record Beethoven must choose between the Revised Thirteenth or the Ur-Liebquartett. The ‘happy ending’ version is an obvious choice when the public is taken into consideration, and that is what most quartets choose. I see only two other original versions of Op. 130 in my database of performances: the Lindsays circa 1986 and the Lindsays in 2000; there are twenty-three revised version performances. So it is commendable when a quartet shows Ludwigian courage and records what the Maestro wrote.

PERFORMANCES Comparing the G.F.s in my collection (three in Op. 130, four as Op. 133), I find that they form a continuum from Valium to Ecstasy, so to speak: The Végh are beautiful but sedated, the Alban Berg and Amadeus work through but with scant emotion, the New Budapest strike a nice balance, the Lindsays let emotion warp sound production towards ugliness. There is a lot to choose from in that spectrum – but none of these performances match the Grosse Fuge in my mind’s ear.

When I first audited the FSQ’s Grosse Fuge, lights out and eyes closed… I experienced a marvelous visual synaethesia: I seemed to see the many parts of the Fugue as a complex three-dimensional orb turning before my eyes, transparent and precise. I don’t know whether I will ever re-experience that vision, but I won’t forget it; I do experience the lucid and articulate music on this disc every time I play it. I suspect that there are an infinite number of possible performances of this music, so I will refrain from calling this or any performance ‘definitive’. I will even express a tiny reservation about this present performance: I would have the Fuga leap in after the Overtura a few microseconds sooner – with neck-snapping violence. Nonetheless this is beyond doubt the best Grosse Fuge I have ever heard, live or recorded.

Although I purchase virtually all of the discs I review, my copy of this disc was a gift from the Fry Street Quartet – enhanced by their autographs, it is my proudest possession! More significantly, I am the founder and self-appointed nanny of The Official Fry Street Fan Club thread. I hereby openly declare that the opinions expressed above are unabashedly coloured by the joy which this ensemble has given me.
Marliave, 1925. Beethoven’s Quartets.
Ulrich, 1966. Chamber Music 2nd ed.
Kermann, 1967. The Beethoven Quartets.
Griffiths, 1983. The String Quartet.
Berger, 1985. Guide to Chamber Music.

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Review by rio98765 July 27, 2011 (5 of 7 found this review helpful)
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Big mistake! I assumed that a (presumably) younger group like this would be aware of basic HIP principles on the use of vibrato in Beethoven.

After all, these days most full symphony orchestras shed players for the symphonies, and more and more Beethoven symphony performances are by chamber orchestras. This is not about period versus modern instruments. The orchestral performances I'm talking about will often only ensure hard sticks are used for the tympani and make appropriate changes to the brass; otherwise instruments are modern and the performances can work perfectly well.

But here, the overwhelming continuous vibrato makes this disc unacceptable to me. The basic performances are sound, perhaps excellent. Initially I thought the vibrato issue should affect the earlier work more than the later ones, but the opposite is true. I found the Op 18 work the most pleasant, but a magnificantly conceived (I think) Grosse Fuge was destroyed for me by the irritation of the vibrato interfering with the lines, structure and dynamics of the work.

Yes, I have a strong interest in period instrument performance, but that does not affect my appreciation of modern instrument performances, including older ones, but none has irritated me the way the Fry Street Quartet's has. I can't pin down what provokes my uniquely strong antagonistic reaction to their tonal technique here.

The surround sound is excellent, but the ambiance has a tonal quality unlike anything else I've heard. Unfortunately nothing is proved by this without knowing what the original acoustic sounds like. Is Mr Kimber's Isomike demonstrating a "sonic signature" of its own, or is it transmitting the true acoustic of the recording location more clearly than conventional recording techniques? Whatever, it's a distinctive and enjoyable sound.

[Reviewed in surround only, with four identical full range floor-standing speakers in a 4.0 set-up.]

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