Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Sample Record Review

I was complaining in this post about how brief and perfunctory record reviews seem to be these days. Writing two or three hundred words about a recording of a five-hour Wagner opera hardly seems to be adequate. So I promised to do a sample record review the way I think it should be done.

I am going to review three recordings of the same music by three different groups of musicians. The recordings are of the complete string quartets of Beethoven and the three recordings are by the Amadeus Quartet for Deutsche Grammophon, recorded between 1959 and 1963 in monophonic sound, by the Alban Berg Quartet for EMI Classics recorded between 1978 and 1983 in stereo and by the Emerson String Quartet, also for Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1994 and 95 in stereo. All three and many other versions are currently available from Amazon.

Even ten thousand words would probably be inadequate to give a full review of these three performances of the complete quartets of Beethoven, so I am going to pick just one movement out of the 80 or so movements in the sixteen quartets (plus the Great Fugue) and focus on it.

The movement will be the finale to the C# minor string quartet, op 131. This quartet, considered by many to be the finest ever written, is paradoxically described as utterly unique and at the same time profoundly 'normal' in the sense described by Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the great English musicologist. It is a highly integrated work with a kind of rhythmic continuity scarcely explored by any other composer.

The quartet is structured in seven movements all connected. The first is a fugue, the second having qualities of both a rondo finale and a scherzo, the third movement, a brief transition to the fourth, a lyrical set of variations, is followed by a child-like scherzo in E major. The sixth movement is another transition, a brief lament in G# minor. And then the Finale: Allegro. Up to this point we have had every kind of form except that one most characteristic of the Classic Era: the sonata form. In order to solve Beethoven's recurring problem with last movements, he solves it here by saving the sonata form for the end and having everything lead up to it. In so doing he probably wrote his finest finale.

The unfortunate thing about this review is that I won't be able to directly do what I like to do, which is put up clips of what I am talking about. The reason is that none of the three versions I am reviewing is available on YouTube for copyright reasons and I am reluctant to rip them off the CDs in my possession to post them. So, you will have to find the recordings yourself. But all three are worth owning in my opinion. However, there are other groups' versions online. Here is a pretty good new recording by Brooklyn Rider:

Now, before getting into the review let's have a brief look at the music. The first page of the score reveals most of the important themes:

Click to enlarge

The opening up and down theme in an anapest rhythm (short, short, long--shades of Shostakovich) gives way to an iamb: short long, short long. As foreshadowed a number of times in previous movements, we move to a Neapolitan (D major) harmony in mm. 17. Later on there will be a whole section in D major. Then a new theme is presented in the first violin: a high cantus-firmus like motto with an augmented second interval. Much of the movement is based on these three ideas. I won't do a complete analysis because, hey, this is supposed to be a record review. But I will refer you to a book where you can find an excellent discussion of this and the other quartets:

And you can find a whole essay by Sir Donald Francis Tovey online as part of this collection of essays:

The individual essay is titled "Some Aspects of Beethoven's Art Forms" and it is about three-quarters of the way through.

Hmm, I seem to have used up seven hundred words and all I have done is lay the groundwork. I guess I will do the reviews in subsequent posts!

(Updated to correct an awkward phrase and an error)


vp said...

I would agree with those who say this is the greatest quartet ever written.

I think my favorite recording of this movement is the Juilliard/RCA. I haven't heard all these recordings, though, so look forward to your analysis. Especially the final four bars, which are played in many ways, ranging from in tempo to half speed.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have not heard the Julliard do this Beethoven. I grew up with the RCA Red Seal recording of the Guarneri Quartet.

Twelve measures from the end the score reads "poco adagio" which is cancelled six measures from the end by "Tempo I".