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Beethoven: Complete String Quartets
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Long absent from the active catalog following the unfortunate demise of the Calliope label, the highly-praised Beethoven interpretations of the legendary Talich Quartet make a welcome return with this specially-priced, limited-edition reissue from La Dolce Volta. The original seven-disc set of the complete String Quartets has been digitally remastered for optimal sound and is presented in a deluxe package befitting the nobility of these wonderful performances.
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The sound is striking-- very closely miked, very detailed. For example, the contrast in tone between the viola and the two violins is much more noticeable than in most others. The inner voices are much more etched and audible. The dynamic contrasts are much more dramatic. Less reverb.
The one thing I don't like is the layout on the disks.
* Normally, you like to have the pieces ordered on the disks in some kind of order -- most sets of the quartets have them laid out so you don't have to look in the booklet to find where a specific quartet is, if it's an early quartet you look on discs 1 or 2, a middle quartet it's on 3,4, or 5, and a late quartet is on 6, 7, 8 (or sometimes 9). They're in order. Here, the layout is entrely catawampus.
* Three of the seven sides mix a middle quartet with a late quartet -- the mood swing is kind of jarring.
* Everyone else puts the Op 130 quartet and then the Grosse Fugue Op 133 sequentially on the same side -- Op 133 was originally composed as the finale of Op 130. The engineers for Talich set put the Grosse Fugue as the first thing on a side, followed by Op 95 and then Op 127. This side just doesn't "fit" musically.
* Beethoven published the three Op 59 quartets together, and as a whole, they have a unity that's greater than the parts. But the engineers scattered the three Op 59 quartets over three disks.
Minor gripe to an otherwise outstanding set.
I'm a great fan as well as a picky listener of Beethoven's quartets. I have owned the following versions of complete Beethoven's quartets:
1. Quartetto Italiano
2. Alban Berg Quartet (both live and studio)
3. Amadeus Quartet
4. Guarneri Quartet
5. Emerson Quartet
6. Melos Quartet
Personally I think Alban Berg Quartet takes the crown of Beethoven Quartet performance. Their playing is warm, delicate, well-balanced and nevertheless powerful and striking. For instance, I have never found elsewhere the great balance and wit in the finale of Op. 59 No. 3, or the unrushed and yet stupendous Op 131. In comparison, Italiano is way too 'soft' and lagging for Beethoven, while Emerson is a bit too 'New York', quite often in a hurry to show off their skills and ruin the 'inner conversations of the four strings'. The others are good overall but either the performance or recording is not as satisfying (For instance Guarneri's performance is not bad but RCA's recording sounds a bit dull).
After I listened to Talich's recording, I feel that I finally found a match for ABQ's performance. Their cello isn't as thick and the first violin not as powerful as ABQ's, but they achieved even better balance. They showed great knowledge in Beethoven's music and really brought out the details and inner harmonies. They used rubatos more often in the mid - late quartets but always tastefully.
I would also like to comment on the packaging itself. The box contains 7 cds in well-designed paper case, and an approx. 70-page booklet with nice illustrations of Talich Quartet. The text composition is the best of its kind, where important quotes takes up a full page in bold fonts instead of lying in between the 'usual' texts (like those of the bigger CD companies).
Overall, I wont pretend that I have understood / consumed all the intents of the other recordings I mentioned above, but if you are a serious Beethoven lover, don't miss this wonderful gem.
For newcomers to these great works, this is a solid first choice as long as you don't require audiophile sound quality. The same goes with the budget set by the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI. But if you need excellent sound, you might give a listen to the Gewandhaus or the new Tokyo Quartet set on Harmonia Mundi.
A final note: As I write this in early 2014, it is much more cost effective to purchase this set as CDs rather than downloads. And you get a nice booklet in a handsome box to boot.
Well done Nimbus and of course the Medici Quartet.
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I really appreciate the remastered sound, not being one for echoey concert hall type quartet recordings. This one is fairly dry and close so you hear a lot more detail in the inner parts than elsewhere on disc. It feels more like the quartet are in your living room rather than elevated onto a concert platform. The quartet's original leader, Jan Talich Senior, is on viola and it's a pleasure to hear the striking viola lines played with such resolute clarity.
The Talich Quartet really let the composer speak (as they do with Mozart), without predictably slowing down at the ends of every phrases and movements. Tempi are fairly brisk, ensemble is tight and technique is flawless.
There are so many highlights - the unison ticking of spiccato bows in the last movement of Op. 59 No, 3 and the matter-of-fact, light-hearted approach to op. 135 No. 16 in F, the same key as op. 18. No.1. And when you listen to the Molto Adagio from the quartet in A minor op. 132 no. 15, have some tissues handy.
If you like Beethoven's String Quartets, these recordings offer a higher level of understanding and empathy than many of the other available recordings.
In my case I purchased the set of four CDs of the later quartets, Opus 74 to Opus 135 and I am very impressed with the Medici’s performance of them. Although I was already familiar with last five quartets I was less so with the other two. I was particularly struck by the Medici’s interpretation of the Opus 74 ‘Harp’ quartet. I have tended to regard this as a kind of orphan quartet that fits awkwardly with Beethoven’s other quartets. The Medici’s serious minded version showed me more clearly its relation with the later quartets.
The late quartets are very fine. The Medici’s robust, direct approach allows the music to speak directly without needing to make interpretative points for us. I know some reviews of this set have criticised the Medici’s string tone. There may be a point here, but it hasn’t given me a problem. Indeed for me this is of a piece with their whole approach, serious and direct. Smooth toned and comfortable late Beethoven doesn’t seem real Beethoven at all to me. That said, I confess a touch more relaxation in the Cavatina of Op 130 wouldn’t have come amiss. That other heart rending movement, the Adagio of Op 132, is wonderful.
Make no mistake - the Talich quartet are more than capable. But what they also bring to their performances is a vulnerability and intimacy that bring out the human, mortal characteristics of Beethoven the man.
Les Talich ( et Kisselhoff !) nous font ici pénétrer au coeur de la création beethovénienne ...