BEETHOVEN String Quartets Op 18
by HARRIET SMITH
With Haydn, Mozart and Schubert under their belt, it was only a matter of time before the Jerusalem Quartet turned their attention to Beethoven. Their only previous taster was a recording of Op 18 No 6, coupled with Ravel and Dvořák, from more than a decade ago. As you’d expect from this group, personality, integrity and lustrous tone are all high on the agenda. The slow movement of No 1, for instance, is given at a relatively brisk pace, avoiding all temptation to over-romanticise it; but, by making the chugging accompaniment relatively prominent, there’s a sense of unease as the melody struggles to make itself heard. They are alive to the drama of Beethoven’s all-important silences too.
Others may find more extremes in this set of quartets. The third movement of the Third can sound more febrile – as the Takács ably demonstrate in the Trio, with its sharply pointed hairpin dynamics – while in the finale of the same work the Jerusalem are a touch gentler than the Takács, the irrepressible Lindsays and the supreme Hungarian Quartet, while the Talich (on Calliope) put more emphasis on a sense of wistfulness. The Jerusalem’s Fourth Quartet is a particular highlight, from the irresistibly characterful viola-playing, a first-movement development full of fire and intensity and a third movement that seems to be paced just right, and in the coda of the finale they really throw caution to the wind, similar in approach to the thrilling Takács but with a more refulgent sound.
They capture well the very different worlds of each quartet, and the variation-form slow movement of No 5 is given with plenty of charm, the trill-infused fifth variation sounding truly unbuttoned. Even if the Hungarian are peerless here in the interplay between musicians in the chattering finale, the Jerusalem run them close, the ending warmly insouciant.
The Sixth Quartet certainly doesn’t lack for energy in the first movement, a whisper faster than the Takács and more gleeful than the Belcea. In the slow movement their characteristically rich tone again comes into its own, while the contrast between the finale’s mysterious opening and the ensuing Allegretto is potently conveyed. Add to that a wonderfully naturalistic recording and you have a triumphant addition to the bulging Beethoven catalogue.