Beethoven: The Late Quar­tets

Qu­atuor Mosaïques NAÏVE ★★★★★

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews classical - An­drew Cle­ments

Even nowa­days, when pe­ri­odin­stru­ment en­sem­bles and soloists abound, string quar­tets who play the clas­si­cal reper­toire not just us­ing gut strings but also with 18th- and early 19th-cen­tury de­sign bows are few and far be­tween. But Qu­atuor Mosaïques have been do­ing that for 30 years. Over that pe­riod they have ex­plored and recorded a wide range of the quar­tet reper­toire, from Haydn to Men­delssohn. On disc, at least, they have been much more cir­cum­spect about Beethoven. Record­ings of the Op 18 works ap­peared piece­meal a decade and more ago, but it’s only now that they have fi­nally got around to the five late quar­tets; there’s a set of the mid­dle-pe­riod works to fol­low as well.

This is a fiercely com­pet­i­tive field on disc, and, from the Busch Quar­tet to the Takács, the stan­dard of the ex­ist­ing sets is some­times strato­spher­i­cally high. The Mosaïques’ per­for­mances have their unique sell­ing point, of course – as far as I know, this is the first record­ing of th­ese works on pe­riod in­stru­ments – but to match the best of what is al­ready avail­able, they would need a bit more than their trade­mark re­straint, trans­parency and tex­tu­ral sub­tlety.

As far as they go, those qual­i­ties are ad­mirable. The phras­ing seems sur­pris­ingly mod­ern, but there’s a light­ness and poise in many pas­sages that can be­come over­wrought – there’s much more light and shade in the Mosaïques’ per­for­mance of the Grosse Fuge, for ex­am­ple, (which they play as the fi­nale of Op 130 – Beethoven’s re­place­ment fi­nale isn’t in­cluded), than there of­ten is, while the open­ing fugue of the C sharp mi­nor Op 131 is laid out with ex­em­plary clar­ity.

Even though vi­brato is strictly ra­tioned, there’s no lack of ex­pres­sive warmth – ev­i­dent from the open­ing mo­ments of the E flat ma­jor quar­tet, Op 127, or the Heiliger Dankge­sang move­ment of Op 132. But there are mo­ments in all five quar­tets that need a firmer hand in­ter­pre­ta­tively, rather than be­ing al­lowed to play them­selves. That’s as true of the Ca­vatina from Op 130 as it is of the Grosse Fuge; nei­ther move­ment plumbs the depths nor scales the heights it can. For all the scrupu­lous mu­si­cian­ship and the rev­e­la­tions it brings, this isn’t quite the stand­out set of th­ese in­ex­haustibly fas­ci­nat­ing works one hoped it might be.

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