Lucid Culture: Late Beethoven Done His Way

Source: Lucid Culture
April 24, 2012

There’s a school of thought that considers the string quartet repertoire to be the world’s most exciting music – an opinion advanced mostly by people who play those works. The Cypress String Quartet’s new triple-disc set of late Beethoven string quartets (Op. 127, 130,131, 132, 133 and 135) is an album for people who share that point of view. It’s less radical an interpretation than it might seem: in fact, it’s about as retro as possible, simply a dedication to following Beethoven’s dynamics to the letter. It may be the most Beethovenesque of all the recordings out there: the old grump, if he could have heard this, no doubt would have approved.

Partial, and very noteworthy, credit goes to the Quartet’s Cecily Ward, who produced the album: all the close-miking and attention to minute detail pays off with a brightly bristling, intense intimacy enhanced even further via headphones. While you will find yourself having to adjust the volume periodically, that’s the way Beethoven undoubtedly would have intended it. But ultimately it’s the playing even more than the production here that steals the show, a powerful, dynamically charged performance that refuses to back away from storminess while also embracing the quietest passages with a gentle rapturousness that adds just as much power and insight. You could spend the better part of a week downloading every recording of these works available on the web, but ultimately this collection might be the more cost-effective choice.

Suffice it to say that Beethoven’s late quartets are arguably the high point of a career spent pushing the envelope, a feat even more noteworthy considering that he was in ill health and could increasingly hear only less and less of what he was writing. Violinists Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel celebrate the unexpected throughout these works: the attention to detail is astounding. Unexpected passages leap out at you and are every bit as interesting as the main themes, sometimes more so. For example, in Op. 127, the second movement becomes much more of a nocturne than a courtly waltz; and then the ensemble gives it a suspenseful bounce. Suspense is the key to so much here: the sudden swells and pervasive unease in the following movement; the briskly wintry foreshadowing of the first movement of Op. 132; the emphatic oomph that springs out of its waltzing third movement; Kloetzel’s cello as omnipresent reality check beneath the hypnotic dreaminess of the fourth movement of Op. 131; the spacious pacing of brooding swells within the comfortable crepulscule atmospherics of Op. 135′s second movement; and the absolutely macabre, insistent tritones of that work’s final movement, the Quartet allowing the frantic horror to linger even as the passage recedes into Haydnesque pleasantry. It would take a small book to list all the highlights. For a more in-depth look at disc two, here’s a review of that one (with Op. 130 and both its “final” ending and the famous Grosse Fugue that Stravinsky reputedly picked as his alltime favorite composition), previously issued as a stand-alone disc toward the end of 2010.

Conceivably, at low volume, this might make suitable background music, although at too low a volume, considering the dynamics, the music fades in and out. But this wasn’t created as background music: this recording is for anyone who would prefer to revel in the power and vast emotional scope of these immortal works. The Cypress String Quartet have a couple of New York shows this month celebrating the release of this album: Wednesday the 25th they’re playing a free show at 7 PM in the auditorium of the computer store at 1981 Broadway on the upper west, with a benefit concert at PS321 at 100 Attorney St. on the Lower East Side at 7 PM on the 26th.