Beethoven: The Late Quartets
Quatuor Mosaïques NAÏVE ★★★★★
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.