Review by georgeflanagin March 13, 2011 (18 of 19 found this review helpful)
Whether your first set or your fifth, these fine performances are ones that speak to an emotional intimacy with Beethoven's late period, and I have listened to each one repeatedly and joyously for the past week and a half. The sound is good, but a bit variable, in part because of three different recording venues, but don't let the quest for perfect sound prevent you from buying them.
Let's skip a discussion thereof since they are the five pillars of Western art music, if not the pillars of Western Civilization itself.
This recording is so important that I must say a little bit about the performance of each quartet individually. I hope that the comments will clarify the Tokyo Quartet's approach, whether these quartets are old friends or new discoveries for you. All of the movements of all the quartets are brought to the listener at a very high standard; the playing is wonderful and accurate, and a great many of the movements are transformational and even transcendent when compared with other performances in my collection -- I have eight copies of Op. 130 and at least six of each of the others.
For anyone making this set your first purchase of the late Beethoven quartets, it is good fortune that Op. 127 is perhaps the one of the Tokyo's performances that most stands above the alternatives you are likely to purchase. All except the final quartet have a monster slow movement that can be difficult for the performers because they must sustain the forward drive of the music. The Tokyo Quartet gives us the best performance of vast second movement of Op. 127 that I have (yet) heard, including live performances that I have attended.
The opening of this movement feels as though we have opened a door to a room where this music has always been playing, perhaps since time began, and we have just discovered it. The Tokyo Quartet offers us a front row seat to this mystery, and neither their nor our attention wanders.
The conventional wisdom is that C minor was Beethoven's key of choice for profound expression, but there are quite a few compositions of weight in B flat, of which this is one. This heaviest of quartets has both an expansive beginning and the Great Fugue that ends it, a fact that frequently leaves the other movements as second class citizens. Not so here. In both of these long movements the Tokyo Quartet plays with unusually strong accents. In the case of the slow movement, we preserve the direction of development; in the fugue, we are able to appreciate the jaunty rhythm in addition to the dissonance and generally stressful environment.
The movements are presented with Op. 133 being in the position of the finale, with the replacement finale following at the end of the disc.
And so we come to Beethoven's personal favorite, the enigmatic C sharp minor quartet. From the fast fugue of Op 130 to the slow motion fugue of Op 131 we go. The first time through, I did not feel entirely captivated by the Tokyo's performance, but a second listen left me much happier with their aesthetic, and the final two movements particularly shine. The finale offers us plenty of anguish and rhythmic drive without the string burning, pitch distorting special effects of The Lindsays.
It is hard to rank either the composer's or the performers' crown jewels, but this presentation of Op. 132 must be placed second in line behind the performance of Op. 127. Stunning. The A minor quartet has as its core (and the middle movement) an expansive adagio that the Tokyo band delivers in 16:04, which is a little on the slower end of performances in my collection, although it is about the same as the Prazak's fine account on Praga SACD. However, I guessed that it was /quicker/ before I looked at the timing, which gives you some idea of the level of rapt attention the performance promotes.
It is a good thing that Beethoven lived long enough to give us this quartet, and it's finale. Had he died just a little earlier, or if you choose to listen to the final five in some other order that composition or publication order, you would feel like you had heard the chamber music equivalent of the Brahms Sym. #4, the Mahler Sym. #6, or an extremely long performance of Winterreisse . The Tokyo Quartet is able to switch moods on a dime, and they bring us this final work as "it must be," to borrow a phrase. In fact, at just that point in the score, the Tokyo Quartet opens a window and lets the fresh breeze bring in relief. It is an amazing feeling of relief akin to the finale of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.
The sound is good, but not spectacular. Depending on what you are in the mood for, this may be a good thing. No matter the venue, the performances are not recorded as closely as the Op. 59 set by the Tokyo group, which gives us two results: there are very few distracting or non-musical sounds from the performers, and a we have a reduced stereo width. I found myself compensating for the latter by using the width control to spread things out some. On headphones, you will not notice. The position of the cello, specifically, seems to periodically draw in toward the center, which left me feeling that the balance was slightly to the left of center. Who knows, maybe it is my hearing?
An excellent choice as a recording of this important music. I have been happier with this purchase than any purchase in the past year.
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