BEETHOVEN: Quartets 14+16

American Record Guide
November/December 2009
Cypress Quartet
Cypress 1-63 minutes
(912 Cole St Apt 137, San Francisco, CA 94117)

The Cypress Quartet was founded in 1996 and is based in San Francisco. This is their own label, but it is easily found. This is Volume I of what is to be a set of the late quartets; the others are due in 2010 and 2011.

This is a very fine group-technically excellent and, I would say, American in approach. Many European groups bring a sense of pain, world-weariness, and reverence to late Beethoven; but here I find confidence and a willingness (and ability) to face Beethoven head-on. The sound is uncommonly fine: rich and beautifully balanced, with violinist Cecily Ward extraordinarily sweet above the staff.

I had somewhat different reactions to the two pieces. The later work, Op. 135, seems well judged from beginning to end. The opening movement has just the right balance between relaxation and forward motion, so the full range of Beethoven's expression has the opportunity to register. Likewise, the Cypress layout the question-answer finale with strength and conviction. The middle movements are just as fine. The scherzo is fast but not frantic, and the wonderful largo is slow enough for my taste!

The other work, Op. 131, is also very good, but I have some minor reservations. The tempos fall in the comfort range; but, to sum up my feelings, the spirit is more of urgency than of contemplation. The fast movements are all satisfying. They do not call for much inflection of tempo, so the strong, direct approach works well. The slower movements are not at all badly done, but they miss opportunities to create more special moments. The opening fugue in Op. 131 is beautifully played, but too tied to the metronome (and probably just a bit too fast), and in general they are reluctant to play really softly. Soft playing (not the same thing as normal playing with the volume turned down) can bring with it a sense of vulnerability or fragility that opens the music up to extra levels of expression. As an example, near the end of the slow movement Beethoven has a surprise turn to C major. It is marked Allegretto and lasts only 12 measures. He precedes this with 4 bars of arpeggios, marked successively piano, piu piano, morendo, and pianississimo (ppp). If you do what Beethoven asks, the last bar will be barely audible, and the turn to C major will become a magical moment. The Cypress get soft, but not nearly soft enough. They sound gorgeous, but the fear of entering an alien world (in this case, C major) is averted. This isn't a disaster, but it qualifies as a missed opportunity. In other spots I wished a particular harmonic turn could be acknowledged more. Some other groups (the Vegh Quartet springs to mind) don't playas well as the Cypress, but they find more in the music.

Taken as a whole, though, this is an impressive start to the series. I look forward to the later volumes.