Well, the review is finally here. After what must be close to two and a half months of renewing this box set at North Sydney library, I’m finally finished listening to all 10 discs and and in some position to offer a review.

Some position. But not quite adequate, really. I’d never really listened to the string quartets ot Beethoven before. In fact, as part of my general “chamber music is boring compared with orchestras and operas” stance, I hadn’t really made it a habit of listening to anyone’s string quartets if I could help it.

But some things started happening that changed my mind.

1) There’s a new movie coming out at some stage called Copying Beethoven, that’s a fictional tale of a girl who helped Beethoven in the last few years of his life, as he finished his Ninth Symphony and then spent his last days after that writing string quartets. That intrigued me – why would a man who could write such spectacular orchestral music, and had such a knack for orchestration and other things, spend his time writing music for (what seemed to me) the rather boring combination of two violins, a viola and a cello? It started to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to these string quartets than I thought.

2) While in New York in November, I called upon my publisher at Amadeus Press, and he was telling me what a big thing it was to write a book about Beethoven symphonies because they were the most important works of Beethoven’s – those and his string quartets. That phrase again . . .

3) I got back from America and was watching the commentary on my new DVD of Immortal Beloved, when the director mentioned that many people consider Beethoven’s late string quartets to be avant garde.

So I got curious. I went to the library and borrowed this set, and then fished around in a box of books in my back cupboard to fish out a book that I’d bought years ago on a whim and never really looked at: Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets (which I shall review in the next post). Armed with de Marliave and the box set of Quartetto Italiano (the very Mafia-looking 60s string quartet from Italy), I began to listen . . .

Unfortunately, the limitations of a library CD (especially a 10-CD set) is that you really only get a chance to listen to things once. So my thoughts on these quartets are fairly limited because I’ve only had a chance to listen to them once.

Basically, Beethoven wrote 16 and a bit quartets, and they kind of divide up into neat sections. The first six were written in the early days of his fame. Back in these days, he tended to compose in the style of Haydn and Mozart and so they sound (surprise surprise) rather like Haydn and Mozart. They’ve very pretty, but they’re not the big spectacular Beethoven that was still to come.

There was then a big break before he wrote his next five string quartets. At this stage, he was at the height of his powers, and all of his music was big, spectacular and heroic. As a result, these middle five probably contain some of the energetic and exciting of the string quartets.

And then we come to the last five. By this stage in his life, all Beethoven’s financial sponsors had either died or left town, so he was broke. He’d spent most of his money fighting a drawn-out court battle for custody of his nephew. He’d just premiered the Ninth. And his health was on a downwards spiral, which eventually would kill him a few years later.

And all of that, he poured into his last five string quartets. Compared with the middle five, these last five are not as spectacular. The heroism is gone. Instead, there’s sounds of pain, of sorrow, of gentleness, and of spirituality. There’s also a brilliance of construction.

So what do they sound like? To my ears, the sound world of the quartets will take some getting used to. I’ve mostly listened to orchestral music, and so to switch to this more intimate and precise type of music takes a listening adjustment. But bits and pieces jump out and me and make me curious to listen more, to learn to know these pieces inside and out, the same way I have done with the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler.

The quartets, while lacking the oopmh and power of a large orchestra, make up for that in a precision of sound – a tightly constructed beauty as the four voices interact with one another. If one instrument makes a mistake or plays something badly, it is ruined for all. So all four musicians must play, and play well. And when they play well, each musician shines.

So, yeah, being the only recording of the quartets I’ve heard, I don’t really know how to rate them. I think I’d give it a 4 out of 5 on an initial listening, but this is probably the type of thing I should come back and review again at a later date.


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