American Record Guide: Beethoven Quartet 13 & Grosse Fuge

American Record Guide
November/December 2010
by William Bender

Cypress Quartet
Cypress 6749-60:26 (912 Cole St Apt 137, San Francisco CA 94117)
Quartets 12-16; Grosse Fuge
La Salle Quartet
Brilliant 94064 [3CD] 196 minutes

The Cypress is Volume 2 of what so far is a highly commendable set of the late quartets of Beethoven. Volume 1 containing Quartets 14 and 16 was released in 2009 to a warm welcome by Paul Althouse (Nov/Dec 2009), who thought the group's sound "uncommonly fine: rich and beautifully balanced" and called the album "an impressive start to the series". I share his enthusiasm.

The performers are two women and two men based in San Francisco who have made their own recordings and produced them with thorough-going professionalism. They take their name from Dvorak's Cypresses, a set of 12 miniatures for string quartet based on the composer's early love songs-a work by the way included in the Emerson Quartet's new Dvorak set on DG (Sept/Oct 2009).

The group might have called itself the Redwoods, rather than Cypresses, so sturdy, poised, and seasoned is its music-making. Metaphorically speaking, there is a wonderful glow that radiates from their playing-from the sheer allure of their string tone, from their steady clarity of line, from their neurosis-free ability to get to the heart of the music, from the rightness of-well, their Beethoven. I don't believe I've ever heard a more profound reading of the opening sonata-form allegro. They make you want them to repeat the opening exposition, and they do. Though No. 13 has a daunting reputation, stemming partly from its six-movement length and its challenging, much debated original last movement, the Grosse Fuge, it is not that complex or difficult to understand if you take it movement by movement. There is a geniality that pervades each of the first five movements-everything that is, except the fugue. In writing the fugue so thickly and at such length (16 minutes) was Beethoven simply aiming for as much contrast as possible by putting it immediately after the enchanting Cavatina? Or in his last years was he just showing off the contrapuntal skills he had of late acquired from study of composers like Handel?

Enter the La Salle with its set of all the late quartets, originally issued by DG in the early 1970s and now reissued on the low-priced Brilliant label. What a welcome release. The La Salle, led by its first violinist Walter Levin, plays an important role in the Grosse Fuge debate, as we shall see. Further, it occupies an honored position in the post-World War II history of string quartet playing. This stems on one level from its paternalistic assistance to many young groups. On another level there was its often revelatory way with the so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Also, its album of the four quartets of Alexander Zemlinsky on DG achieved classic status three decades ago.

As all devotees of the late quartets are aware, there are not one but two endings of No. 13. Both are in active use, and these days both are included in all self-respecting releases, as is the case with the Cypress and La Salle. The Grosse Fuge struck Beethoven's publisher, Matthias Arteria, as too complicated for the Viennese public, especially its amateur players, and he persuaded the composer to allow it to be published separately and to replace it with a simpler conclusion. The substitute 9 minute allegro turned out to be totally charming. Because Beethoven agreed to Arteria's idea so quickly-overnight in fact-and produced the replacement so agreeably, one can't help wondering if he didn't have the allegro tucked away somewhere in that great brain of his all along. At any rate, with all this taking place just months before he died, the allegro became the last thing Beethoven wrote.

In its original issue of the late quartets, the La Salle came down firmly on the side of the Grosse Fuge. They recorded it with the first five movements in 1972; they did not get around to the allegro until 1976. Preferring the fugue was quite a departure. Until that point, the orthodoxy had been to record the Grosse Fuge separately. The allegro was the unquestioned last movement. It was, after all, the composer's last word on the subject. For example, the Quartetto Italiano's set of all the quartets on Philips (1969) put the Grosse Fuge on a separate disc. It is still on a separate disc in the latest reissue of the set on CD. The Budapest Quartet's celebrated complete set in the early 1950s for Columbia did the same thing, and their 1933 recording had also closed with the allegro (Biddulph 80222).

What happened around 1970 to change the thinking of the string-quartet community? The importance of the La Salle's release on DG cannot be denied. It was in effect a direct challenge to the Quartetto Italiano, and to Philips-and at the time DG's credentials as a forum for learned Beethoven interpretation were impeccable. There was also a new affection for authenticity and historical accuracy, partly to the credit of the two-decade-old LP revolution. Further, an upsurge of scholarship was exemplified most of all by Charles Rosen's book The Classical Style in 1971. To Rosen, Quartet 13 ended with the Grosse Fuge. That was that.

Surely there is merit on both sides of the debate. The fugue is less effective as part of Quartet 13 than it is alone. And the quartet itself works better that way. I first argued the point two years ago in a review of an album of the late quartets by the Colorado Quartet (Nov/Dec 2008). My principal thesis then was that the allegro preserved the serenity of the first five movements-spoke the same language, so to speak-whereas the fugue was too much of a contrast and made the whole work lopsided. Some supporters of retaining the fugue point out that it ties together thematic material from the earlier movements. That it does-but it takes a skilled ear to detect them. Actually, the fugue also embraces themes from Quartets 14 and IS. It was Beethoven's habit to work on more than one work at a time, and 13 was not completed until after 14. Can it not reasonably be argued that the Grosse Fuge is an umbrella of sorts to others if not all of the late quartets? That might be the strongest reason for keeping it separate.

Both the La Salle and the Cypress place the fugue right after the Cavatina, then add the allegro, giving the record buyer a choice of endings. I can't imagine anyone interested in the work or in Beethoven not wanting to hear both, but I would place the allegro first. As to the performances, the Cypress has an easier time with the fugue than the La Salle. These folks can really play. Cecily Ward is the first violinist, and also gets credit as producer of the album. Her mates are violinist Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. One quibble: they take N, 'alIa danza tedesca', slower than any quartet I've ever heard. That adds too much time to the 16th note rests at the end of the first theme.

Because the theme is repeated many times, the music develops a kind of hiccup effect that the group may want to reconsider next time. Despite a strain here and there in the fugue, the La Salle manages to acquit itself very well with strong, powerful readings of these great, now-and-then mystical works. Some groups approach them with reverence, seemingly on bended knee. Not the La Salle. They attack and challenge this music at almost every point. That is probably not to everyone's taste. But there may never again be a set of the late Beethoven quartets as urgent and strongly accented as this.