September 15, 2009
Beethoven’s music can be played in many ways: by emphasizing its sheer momentum by tearing ahead, or its dramatic dynamic shifts by overdoing the extremes a bit, or its contemplative virtues by taking time to sniff the daisies along the way. These can run to extremes when it comes to his monumental output of 16 string quartets.
The latest complete set constitutes a nine-disc box featuring the performances of the Bay Area’s own Alexander String Quartet (FoghornClassics; CD 1996, CD 1999, and CD 2002).
What’s interesting and unusual in the new set is that the Alexanders incorporate something from all the available possibilities. They’re not playing themselves, but rather trying to capture the many colors and moods in Beethoven’s finest compositions. Their playing of the various scherzos, for instance, ranges between violence and the pixy, the slow movements between romantic and the deeply devout.
With modern sonics helping out, the clarity of Beethoven’s part writing emerges as a particular virtue, especially vital in fast fugal movements. A listener is made aware of that during the finale of the Quartet No. 9, the third “Razumovsky” Quartet, which is taken at a whiplash tempo. It really is a bit too much. What the Alexanders have done is sacrifice the feeling of monumentality for the sake of excitement. They are, however, more controlled when performing the antsy Grosse Fuga, Op. 133, as closer to the B-flat Quartet, Op. 130.
On the plus side, the performances are all set within their own time, the 19th century, not as throwbacks to the 18th. That’s noteworthy in the six quartets of Beethoven’s early Op. 18 set. There’s no glancing over the shoulder at Haydn’s or Mozart’s styles; instead, the presentation is made in Beethoven’s assertive mode. These pieces are thus, so to speak, quartets that left their powered wigs in the dressing room.
Listen to the Music
A-Minor Quartet, Op. 132 - Allegro appasionato
Yet the Alexanders are not afraid to use the colorings of the future when Beethoven’s vision shot out beyond his own time. I can pick out hints of Schubert, Schumann, and even Brahms in these performances. For an example, listen to their recorded finale of the A-Minor Quartet, Op. 132. Rather than trying to camouflage Schubert’s obvious influence of that movement, the players’ tempo and bowing tend to emphasize it. Great! That’s perfectly justified.
The Alexander Quartet is well-known locally, since they serve as the resident quartet for both San Francisco Performances and the Morrison Center for the Advanced Study of Chamber Music at San Francisco State University.
Their generic flaws, while minor, turn up in the recordings, as well as at performances: the rather cavalier attitude toward intonation from first violinist Zakarias Grafilo, and the occasional exaggerated dynamic playing of cellist Sandy Wilson. Neither is gross, but neither quite represents the finest sort of chamber music.
Still, as a fine selling point, this set is amazingly inexpensive: The full set of nine CDs costs $75, or less than $10 per disc; of course, this isn’t exactly pocket change, but it nearly is, when you consider that purchasing all 16 quartets plated by a big-name ensemble could easily run $175 or more.
The overall set comes as separate three volumes, each containing three CDs. These are packaged in a general slipcover. They’re recorded in order, with the early, middle, and late quartets each encased in its own three-disc jewel box (which also contains its own program booklet). I should add that the program notes are of a high scholastic quality and are well-written, to boot. All Beethoven’s 16 quartets at a bargain price? It’s worth considering.
(Since local mega-record-stores are a thing of the past, you can acquire the set online.)