Site review by Polly Nomial March 5, 2006
|This set from Praga combines the previously issued separate releases (some RBCD, some stereo SACD and some MCH SACD). The RBCD’s have been remastered for stereo SACD, so the box has 4 stereo and 3 MCH discs [identified below]. The cycle was started in 1999 with Op.132 but I shall discuss the discs as presented in this set.
The first disc is of three of the Op.18 quartets (1, 4 and 5) and is one of the three MCH discs, although on original release it was stereo only. It opens with No.4, which commences with an almost Mahlerian pause on the opening tenuto, and sadly commences in a way that is too relentless in its drive and for me, over-accentuation. No.5 follows and is played with a sunnier manner but still the over emphasis of Beethoven’s accents break up the musical line on too many occasions to be ideal. The disc concludes with No.1 which receives the best performance, with only slightly too emphatic accents in the second movement spoiling an otherwise perfectly enjoyable performance. The balance is far too forward to be enjoyable but the MCH layer has a pleasing sense of ambience.
The second disc completes the Op.18 quartets, starting with No.3 which is played in a similar manner to No.1; the Pražák Quartet do not make too much of the accents here. For a brief moment, it sounds like No.2 will be very successful until the Pražák start to think that we must not only hear each accent but almost “feel” them too. Just as in the first disc, the last quartet to be included is the most successful, and No.6 opens with a nice sense of rhythmic momentum. The playing continues in an unmannered way until the finale where some might feel that too much is made of the finale rather than the “innocent” movement it can be in other hands.
The third disc contains the first two “Razumovsky” quartets (Op.59/1 & 2). On this stereo disc, the Pražák Quartet are not helped by the overly bright and close recording that transforms every accent into a violent assault on the ears. Sadly this marred both quartets and makes repeated listening uncomfortable despite the generally very good pacing and phrasing employed – here the drama that the Pražák find is not so out of keeping with the music as in the Op.18 quartets, though some might find it a little much at times and there are moments when, like the Lindsay Quartet, (over-) enthusiasm is given greater value than accuracy of intonation.
The fourth disc contains the third “Razumovsky” quartet (Op.59 No.3) and “The Harp” Op.74. Both these middle period Beethoven masterpieces are presented in well balanced MCH sound (though perhaps overly present surround information in Op.59/3), with the Pražák not so forwardly balanced as in the stereo discs – in the fugal opening to the finale of Op.59/3 the textures are easily identifiable. With respect to their interpretations, both are hugely enjoyable if not perhaps first choice for either quartet. The pacing of both quartets is conventional (not boring) and for the first time, the enthusiasm has been tempered a little to prevent too many slips of intonation. This is probably the finest disc of the cycle.
The fifth disc is the last of the MCH discs and contains the “Serioso” quartet Op.95 and the great Op.130. The Op.130 is presented with the Grosse Fuge Op.133 as the “normal” finale and the “original” finale is attached as the final track so that the listener can program the player with their preference. Op.95 is played with real abandon (in a positive sense) and is tremendously enjoyable. We are then brought down to Earth with a (nice B-flat major) bump for one of the pinnacles of the quartet repertoire. Sadly the Pražák don’t manage to make as much sense of the opening as many but the following Allegro is better with plenty of energy and gravitas. This is where the playing style of the Pražák Quartet emphatically playing all the markings comes into its own – it is just a shame that they didn’t tone it down for the early and middle quartets. The Scherzo is taken at a nice pace – not lightning quick as in the Emerson Quartet but not sluggish either – there are no technical problems to report in a notoriously tricky movement. The Andante is played nicely with the “oddities” that Beethoven throws in, nicely pointed up. The subsequent Alla danza tedesca lilts along in a very pleasant manner – it is as though we are observing a dance on a lazy summers’ afternoon. Unfortunately the sublime Cavatina appears to get the better of the Pražák mentally – they play all the notes in the right order at the right time and with the right dynamic but they don’t quite manage to make it into a cohesive whole; at no point did I feel like it would break concentration to breath as with other quartets. The Pražák Quartet then choose to employ the Grosse Fuge Op.133 as the finale to the quartet, with its “original” ending as an appendix but naturally one can make a different choice. Op.133 is given a very strong performance technically but again, compared to other quartets (such as the Busch or the Takács to name but two), the musical whole is somehow missing which is a real shame. The “original” ending is played quite quickly – a little too quickly for me as it lacks any sense of the magnitude of the composition that precedes it. The recording is nicely balanced with a nice ambience given to the players.
The sixth disc reverts back to stereo and contains the Op.127 and Op.131 quartets which sadly means the balance is far too close and everything the Pražák does interpretatively sounds massively exaggerated and/or glassy. The opening chords to Op.127 are not given as much space as quartets like the Busch or Takács manage and the ensuing Allegro teneramente is taken at such a speed that it could not, even generously, be described as “tender”. The wonderful adagio that follows is much more faithful both to the letter and spirit of the score; the opening is truly cantabile and doesn’t drag. The tempo changes are kept nicely in proportion to keep the musical argument building to a fitting climax before returning to the opening flowing speed. The Scherzando is given a nice performance but the cross-rhythms of the presto central section are not exploited as fully as one would ideally like, a bit too inoffensive here (probably the only time in the whole cycle that I could say this!) The concluding Finale is taken at a fairly quick pace but the Pražák cope with all the demands that the score makes; the contrasts between the quick march-like episodes, the seemingly innocent opening motif and the “country dancing” are perfectly caught – a very enjoyable end to the quartet. Turning to the great C-sharp minor quartet Op.131, the opening is certainly not too slow (many might feel it was a little too sprightly) and whilst the Pražák find much to say, it is not always said in a way that forms a coherent message; I feel that too often the depths this marvellous work are unexplored. This passage moves smoothly into the Allegro molto vivace which is given a dramatic (but not overly so) reading before another well managed transition into the Allegro moderato which the Pražák use to prepare the following Andante very well indeed. The Andante is very well played by itself (it is just a shame that the opening of the piece does not fit this level of achievement as well); the Andante chosen is quite flowing but is far from fast and is altogether well integrated as a movement. The glassiness of the recording is reminiscent of the Busch Quartets’ recording in the Presto, as is the playing for once! The short adagio that prefaces the final allegro is well played (as is the allegro) but because of earlier shortcomings the cumulative feeling is less than overwhelming release by the end of the piece.
The final (and also stereo) disc in the cycle contains the final two quartets (Op.132 and Op.135). Op.132 is given a very good reading indeed and the recording is not as closely done as in most of the previous discs and so is instantly more enjoyable from that point of view, if no other. Fortunately the Pražák Quartet give a good account of the first movement, with the second movement nicely lilting along. The crucial Molto adagio is not as molto as some (1 minute faster than the Takács Quartet and a full 3’30 faster than the Busch Quartet) and so, despite the generally persuasive playing, some of the “standing still” feeling is lost. The following Alla Marcia is played in a nicely contrasting way to what comes before and leads nicely up to the concluding allegro-presto which the Pražák don’t manage to make as much sense as I have heard in other readings. The final quartet is opened impressively enough with a nice pace enabling the Pražák to drop in and out of triplets but some of the lines are allowed to fragment all too easily. One thing the Pražák Quartet cannot be accused of is not knowing how to make a dance movement trip nicely along and the second movement is no exception. The third is nicely meditative before the ultimate question and answer in music (with the possible exception that Beethoven poses in the 9th Symphony). A distraught question that appears to fade with weakness is then given a very firm and affirmative answer. This is a quartet that the Pražák have the measure of over all despite a few inadequacies in the first movement.
In summary, I felt that the Pražák did not provide enough differentiation in style between early and late to feel a voyage as can do in cycles such as Takács Quartet (what I would give for this on SACD, even if stereo only). Amongst modern recordings, the Takács seem to find the perfect balance between energy, phrasing, pacing and the mood of the individual quartet they are playing as well as managing to mould them into a convincing whole as a cycle. Sadly, the Pražák do not measure up to this exalted standard and are not helped in most instances by the very forward balance given to them by Praga. This is ultimately and sadly, a stop-gap recording, albeit a good one in places.
Copyright © 2006 John Broggio and SA-CD.net