All Music Guide: Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130; Große Fuge, Op. 133

All Music Guide
June 23, 2010
by Uncle Dave Lewis

In the second installment of their recorded cycle of the late Beethoven string quartets, Cypress String Quartet have elected to attack the quartet that is both the longest -- in its original version -- and contains his latest music of any kind, Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130. Of the two attributes previously mentioned, they cannot be had simultaneously in a single realization of the work, as the Opus 130 becomes Beethoven's longest quartet by virtue of inclusion of its original last movement -- the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 -- and latest only through the use of the replacement "Finale: Allegro" submitted in its stead.

Cypress String Quartet address the choice by including both movements with the newer one placed at the end as a bonus track. Clearly they prefer the "Grosse Fuge" as the closer to this work and they do what they can to make it adhere to the overall formal plan. At just over 15 minutes, the Grosse Fuge is performed about a minute faster than is the average and their ensemble dynamics are very carefully observed; unlike the Smetana Quartet's famous 1960 recording of the piece, this is not a version that seeks to amplify the obvious "modern-ness" of the Grosse Fuge but one that attempts to integrate it within the greater stylistic continuity of Beethoven's other late quartet music. The additional Finale is nevertheless played very nicely, and their "Cavatina," "Presto" and "Alla Danza Tedesco" are all ravishing realizations of these movements, and the recording, made at Skywalker Sound, is splendid. So in Cypress String Quartet's Beethoven Late Quartets: Volume 2, they succeed in making Beethoven's well-trodden quartet music sound fresh and new, though it's worth mentioning that there are some listeners who will never regard the Grosse Fuge as an acceptable ending to the Op. 130 Quartet and feel that it is best experienced on its own terms.