Beethoven: String Quartets Nos. 2, 9, 14 & 15 (CD review)

String Quartets No. 9, Op. 59/3; No. 15, Op. 132; No. 2, Op. 18/2; and No. 14, Op. 131. Artemis Quartet. Virgin Classics 50999 607 102 0 8 (2-disc set).

Recorded by EMI-Virgin in Koln, Germany, 1998 and 2002, these four Beethoven string quartets played by the Artemis String Quartet receive what is, I believe, their first release in America. At least, if Virgin issued them over here earlier, the discs escaped me. The interesting thing about this particular collection is that it shows us clearly the contrasts among Beethoven's chamber works, which in itself makes the disc unusual.

Beethoven's early chamber pieces were pretty conventional by the standards of his later work, and here we get both early and late string quartets. Things begin with the String Quartet No 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, the third of three quartets the composer wrote in 1804-06 for Count Andrey Kirilovich Rasumovsky, a music lover with the means to hire his own house ensemble, in which he sometimes himself played. By this time Beethoven's chamber works were becoming quite a bit more mature and complex than those of his contemporaries, and they were also becoming ever more perturbing for his audiences. Many critics of the day, baffled by what they heard, simply dismissed them. No. 9, for instance, is all about contrasts, which Beethoven's listeners must have found unfathomable. After an opening movement of tonal and stylistic disparities, the second movement flows with a wonderfully fluid pizzicato rhythm, followed not by a traditional Scherzo but by a Minuet and then a highly charged finale, which the Artemis Quartet might have played with even more zest.

Next up on disc one is the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. It comes much later (1824-25) than the preceding piece, and it's done up in five movements rather than the usual four. Beethoven continued to innovate, producing a sedate, almost somber opening section with sudden outbursts; a relaxed second movement; an incredibly touching slow movement sounding at first like a solo organ playing a mournful but moving dirge before breaking out into a more plaintive, emotional appeal; then a march (Napoleonic times, after all, making military motifs common); and at last an ardent but otherwise fairly commonplace closing movement.

Disc two begins with the earliest of the works included, the String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2, a part of Beethoven's first-ever string quartet cycle in 1798. This is a light, blithe, fluent, wholly delightful piece, more in line with the kind of chamber music folks of the time commonly heard. True, an odd outburst of activity erupts in the middle of the slow movement, but this is about the only unusual element in the structure. There is a sly, witty Scherzo, and finally a concluding Allegro of charm and grace. Again, the Artemis group play with such polish they don't alway open up the joy and excitement they could, but there is no denying their finesse.

Finally, we hear the String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, a complete change of pace from the little Quartet No. 2 that goes before it on the disc. Beethoven wrote No. 14 in seven movements this time; moreover, they are seven movements that sort of run into one another. Compared to the cheerfulness of No. 2, this one is more solemn, a note of melancholy tinging even the faster sections.

The Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko, violin; Heime Muller, violin; Volker Jacobson, viola; and Eckart Rung, cello) play elegantly, precisely, but without some of the passion one hears from other chamber groups. Perhaps they are intent on presenting the music as objectively as possible, I don't know; it's a commendable virtue that, unfortunately, doesn't always pay off in the greatest involvement for the listener. Still, if it's the music one considers foremost, the Artemis players pay the right dividends.

My only quibble is actually with Virgin Records for their arrangement of the quartets on the two discs. I would have preferred seeing them presented in chronological order to be able to hear the composer's progress of thought and style over the years. I suppose one can easily do this by simply playing them in whatever order one chooses, but it would have been easier (provided the music fit on the discs properly) for Virgin to have done it for us.

The sound of the four instruments, incidentally, blends nicely in Virgin's moderately close-up recording, making for a comfortable listening experience. The sonics are warm and smooth, the musicians well spread out across the speakers, with an especially taut cello response. The miking is close enough to produce good detail yet displays enough ambient bloom around the instruments to bring out a lush, plush, relaxing sound.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa