|Site review by ramesh January 23, 2009
|This is the first of two PentaTone discs introducing to SACD the four quartets recorded in quadraphonic format from the Quartetto Italiano's integral Beethoven cycle.
The Quartetto Italiano were constituted in 1945. After stints with various labels, they started a fruitful relationship with Philips in 1965, for which they made a celebrated string of recordings. A change of violist in late 1977 presaged the group's disbanding about 1980. This association with a major record company made them royalty in the string quartet world. As Philips' 'house quartet', they were as prominent as the Amadeus Quartet were for DGG, the Borodins for Melodiya, the Juilliard for Columbia, or the Alban Berg for Teldec and EMI.
The Quartetto Italiano's technique characteristically showed broad bowing without excessive vibrato, allied to an exquisite tonal blend. Whereas the Borodin's equal technique could sometimes be too intense and unremitting tonally for classical period works, and the Amadeus quartet later garnered criticism from the Anglo-American press about surface refinement being pursued at the expense of 'spirituality', the Italians generally steered a happy and rarefied course between these. The players were renowned for their intense and broadly drawn slow movements. This was enlivened by a wide palette of hues of vibrato. If anything, their vibrato was less heavily applied than many other quartets of their era, its full amplitude being reserved for the structural and emotional climaxes of the work. [ This is nicely exemplified here at just before the 10 minute mark in the first movement of Op 59/1 ]. In this aspect, their playing seems very contemporary, for avoidance of full-fat vibrato is evident in their successors, such as the Fry Street's stunningly recorded Beethoven quartet SACDs.
Based on hearing their major Philips recordings, the Italian's allegros fall short of the precipitousness from more impulsive quartets. This is not to say that their quick movements are stodgy-- they are exhilarating, but this excitement is underpinned by a scrupulous presentation of musical structure. As is often the case, the Italians' playing in these movements is actually quicker than it sounds. Their technical polish endows a sense of having more time to play the notes. [ Reliance on comparative timings can be problematic due to the variances in many quartets with the observance of repeats. Additionally, the Italians generally observed stronger contrasts in movements with dual tempos. Their celebrated but controversial recording of the Grosse Fuga Op 133 has these extreme speeds between the first and second subjects, as though it was a homage to Furtwängler's interpretation with the Berlin Philharmonic.] As is evident in the scherzos of 18/6 and 59/1, the Italians eschewed mere velocity in favour of presenting maximum contrast between sforzandos and piano/mezzo-piano chords. I find them peerless in their characterisation of Beethoven's scherzos.
Rather unusually, the Quartetto Italiano's sequence for the Beethoven Quartets commenced in the late 1960s with recordings of the late quartets, and crowned in the early-mid 1970s with the Opus 18 set. The First Rasumovsky and Opus 18/6 were recorded in 1973 and 1972 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland : the same venue which Philips used for many Beaux Arts Trio and Claudio Arrau solo recordings. Just as the most important early stereo Beethoven symphony cycles internationally were probably Karajan's and Klemperer's, the early stereo cycles of his quartets were dominated by the Italians, the Amadeus and the Hungarians, although the Vegh Quartet's Beethoven cycle in the 1970s gained unanimous praise.
The performances here are two of the best ever recorded for these works, with only one movement of each quartet requiring qualifications. I find 18/6 to be the most interesting of Beethoven's 'early' quartets. With Beethoven's mastery of form and rhythm, the entire work has a commanding presence fully equal to the masterpieces of his middle period such as the Opus 59 'Rasumovsky' quartets. All the qualities mentioned earlier about the Italians : their tonal blend, projection of structure, characterisation through shadings of dynamics and rhythm; all this is present with full pomp in the ebullient opening of Op 18. Only an unmusical sourpuss could fail to smile at the chirping, chugging rhythm from the second violin and viola, over and under which are threaded the first subject from the first violin and cello.
Op 18/6 has an extraordinary alternating adagio/ allegretto quasi allegro finale which seems to presage the Op 110 sonata finale or the late quartets, much as there is an affinity between the second movement of the Pathétique sonata and the adagio of the 'Choral' Symphony. Beethoven's movement marking is 'LA MALINCONIA. Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla piu gran delicatezza'. Nobody quite knows what this means.
Dürer's famous woodcut, http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melancholia_I may be relevant, for it was very popular during Beethoven's time.
The Italian's interpretation of this movement, especially the intense adagio sequences, is very powerful. However, the forte-piano dynamic contrasts become declamatory fortissimo-pianissimo, with extreme legato alternating with biting sforzando chords. Some might criticise it as exaggerated and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskauery, since it misses Beethoven's notation of 'gran delicatezza' in favour of rhetorical overkill. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Italians are intent on demonstrating the composer looking forward, shedding the proprieties of classical form rather like the Incredible Hulk bursting through one of Marie Antoinette's chiffon dresses.
The only possible controversy in the Italian's peerless First Rasumovsky lies in their broad, majestic Adagio. Some might feel it too static, even chill, although I find it it remarkable. In part this is because the players don't exaggerate the dynamic contrasts the way they do in the finale of Op18/6. For me, the Italiano project the mood of almost catatonic anguish which lies at the elusive core of this work. It is their mastery of both musical structure and sustained, intense legato playing which achieves this.
The recording quality and SACD transfer are exemplary. The Philips engineers avoided the slight treble brightness that DGG accorded the Amadeus Quartet's Beethoven and Haydn, and the tubby bottom-heaviness of the Vegh Quartet's sound on CD. The quartet is recorded slightly further back than most digital recordings of chamber music. This means that the violin's highest [ E ] string has a volume which sounds more in proportion to the rest, and is more faithful to the timbre one hears in the concert hall. Many digital recordings overemphasise both high violin sounds and the lowest registers of the cello, making the quartet sound jumbo sized, with a double bass moonlighting for the cello. The Philips recording is perfect in timbre and volume, with no suggestion of analogue tape hiss at lifelike listening levels.