Notes of an Amateur, December, 2009, Part 3
L.Van Beethoven, The Complete Quartets, The Alexander Quartet. Foghorn Classics. Early Quartets: CD 1996. Middle Quartets: CD 1999. Late Quartets: CD 2002.
This is the second recording of the complete Beethoven String Quartets by this group. It was recorded over two surprisingly short periods in the spring and fall of 2008 in New York City and has been released on the group's own label, www.foghornclassics.com, which already includes recordings of Mozart's and Shostakovich's quartets. (It is also available from the usual sources: Amazon, MDT, etc.) The Alexanders have been performing together for nearly thirty (!) years and have thus far inexplicably escaped my attention. I owe my finally meeting them entirely to the counsel of violinist Judith Statham of St. Johns, Newfoundland, widow of the late Backwoods Barry Statham, who appeared from time to time in the equipment reviews I wrote in an earlier life. She has been searching diligently for a definitive set of this music and urged me to have a listen. I owe her profound thanks.
My first impression, based on my initial hour or so with their Opus 18, was that this doesn't sound at all like “early” Beethoven, late eighteenth century music. It feels as if the late quartets are playing the early ones! There is more power and less elegance than I am used to in these quartets. Brisk, but also forceful. A premium on energy and expressiveness. The Alexanders are 'going after' Beethoven; and it would seem they prefer to bring him into our time than to go back to traditional ideas of his. They love his energy. There are periodic hints and moments of elegance but they are not allowed to take hold.
As I listened on into the set, it occurred to me that this is the hard way to play Beethoven. To play him this way you need perfect ensemble work. And then you need to make your different case, to be aesthetically persuasive. As I moved through the Middle Quartets, it became clear that their approach is consistent. The Alexanders sent me back to the Miros' and Emersons for comparisons, two other untraditional American performances that I really like; but surprisingly they disappointed a bit, for the first time. There was something missing. What? A degree of energy but perhaps even more important, definition. The Alexanders' ensemble work is magically good—no surprise, they've played together since 1981. And we hear everything. The clarity is stunning. They reminded me of fleeter Mosaiques, which I'll get to below.
I returned to the recordings a few days later, moving on to the Late Quartets. Again, clarity and precision were what struck me first. They sounded almost Boulez-like. They make us want to hear Beethoven as if for the first time. It is sometimes as if each instrument is individually mic'ed. It is not at all an 'analytic' sound so much as one in which clarity is the goal, in the belief that if the music is rendered with near absolute clarity, expression will come. And it does. Boulez' Mahler has been called heartless by those who favor the passion of Bernstein. I do not find it heartless at all and I find Bernstein's Mahler forced, pumped up. It is sometimes as if Boulez is conducting the Alexanders.
On this hearing, I was also struck with how light, fast, and self-assured the Alexander's Beethoven is. It is confident and exciting. When I say it brings to mind the Mosaiques, I realize this may well be because both groups use little or no vibrato, decreasing liquidity and smoothness, but injecting crispness and immediacy. In the case of the Alexanders, to my ears, playing without vibrato takes the varnish off and gets us down to the natural directness stringed instruments are capable of. It also diminishes some of the 'polish' strings are also capable of, but the Alexanders' tonality is notably attractive notwithstanding. And the recorded sound is perfect, helped out, I'm sure, by the venue, the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, which is where the Emersons and Miros record, but also by the engineering. The acoustic is warm and clear, the highly sought after ideal. Engineer Judith Sherman has somehow got everything out from between us and the musicians. The clarity and presence are stunning without being over-assertive or overwhelming. On my JM Reynaud Offrande Supremes and Orfeo II speakers, it is truly a revelation: the closest thing I've ever heard to a 'live' recording of a string quartet.
I came back for final listen a few days later to confirm my impressions, focusing this time on Opus 127 and 131, and heard the same bold, clear statement. The Alexanders clearly aim to define Beethoven, to be definitive, at least for a modern audience. To my ears, their performances can make most other contemporary takes on this music sound understated, withheld, even dull—at least until you adjust to the different senses of the music. The Mosaiques do sound similar but play at a slightly slower pace, giving the music a little more time to work on us; and their 'period' instruments produce a marginally lighter sound. The contrast with the Mosaiques helps to crystallize what I'm hearing. The Alexanders play the composer who set out to change music history, and did so. The long adagio movements in both quartets, each marked Adagio ma non troppo e motto cantabile, offer the opportunity for a degree of retrenchment but the statement remains strong. It is more intense and passionate than reflective. Corners are turned sharply and firmly. I have heard these movements played more beautifully but never more searchingly. Whatever we come to think of the Alexanders' Beethoven over time, it should change our thinking about this music really is. It has knocked most of the contemporary competition out of my house.
Systems used for this audition: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature. Blue Circle BC 3000 II/GZPz tubed preamplifier and BC 204 hybrid amplifier. Jean Marie Reynaud Offrande Supreme and Orfeo II loudspeakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas, Sootto, and Sogon interconnects; Audio Note Lexus and Sogon speaker cables.
Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.