Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets (CD review)

Cypress String Quartet. Avie Records AV2318 (3-disc set).

The last time I listened to the Cypress String Quartet, it was an Avie recording of Schubert's String Quintet with the addition of Gary Hoffman, cello, and I liked very much what I heard. This time out the Cypress Quartet play the middle Beethoven quartets: the String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in E flat, Op. 74 "Harp"; and the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 "Serioso." I still like what I hear.

The Cypress String Quartet comprises Cecily Ward, violin; Tom Stone, violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello. They formed in San Francisco in 1996 and haven't slowed down in the past decade and a half. They are building a healthy discography, they perform on major stages all over the world, they receive commissions and play premieres extensively, and their members have received degrees from prominent universities, including The Juilliard School, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the Royal College of Music (London), Indiana University, The Cleveland Institute of Music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They have impressive credentials.

I said of the Cypress players the last time out that they provided rich, active, enthusiastic, and highly polished presentations, just as they do here. Having already successfully covered the late Beethoven string quartets in a 3-disc set on their own label, they now tackle the middle quartets in like style for Avie Records. As before, the Cypress Quartet is a remarkable music-making ensemble. Their playing is the utmost in clarity and refinement, yet they always maintain a vigorous and dynamic attack, rendering everything they play both authoritative and pleasurable. They are simply fun to listen to.

It's hard for me to point out any one or two of the performances as the absolute best of the set, but I can tell you a little about each one and single out a few things I enjoyed. Certainly, the first three quartets on the programs are interesting, the "Razumovsky" quartets that Beethoven wrote in 1806 on commission from Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the time. The first two of them have distinctly Russian folk inflections in them, probably to honor their patron.

The ensemble maintains a moderate pace in the faster movements, not so fast as I've heard but faster than, say, the older Quartetto Italiano, which seems perhaps a tad more relaxed. Interestingly, the Cypress players tend to slow down more so in the Adagios and such than I expected. It serves them well, as it complements the diverse but always welcome phrasing they employ throughout the set. Most important, though, is the heroic sweep they provide in this music, matching the broad, grand manner of Beethoven's ideas.

The Cypress performers are ideal in creating and releasing tensions, building incrementally and transitioning from one dynamic to another. And the fact that they keep such a full, rich, yet lucid and flowing line just adds to our enjoyment. This is a group of four musicians who sound like a small chamber orchestra yet reveal a wealth of detail in their interactions. You could hardly ask for more.

Cypress String Quartet
The so-called "Harp" quartet of 1809 is enjoyable, too, although it doesn't actually use a harp in it. It got its name from pizzicato arpeggios that may remind listeners of a plucked harp. Apparently, the publisher gave it the name "Harp" because musical compositions with nicknames are easier for people to remember, and, thus, there's the possibility of their becoming more popular. There's a lovely "Romantic" spirit to the Cypress's playing of the "Harp" quartet, their development of the work's inherent lyricism most touching.

The "Serioso" quartet premiered in 1814 but Beethoven probably wrote it several years earlier. The composer said he had never intended it for public performance but only for a small circle of friends; indeed, it is somewhat different from his other pieces, perhaps experimental in nature and looking forward to his later work. The "Serioso" business is Beethoven's own title for the piece and from a tempo marking for the third movement.

The "Serioso" quartet makes a good contrast with the preceding "Harp," in that the "Serioso" is far more dramatic and, well, serious. The Cypress players emphasize its decidedly bare, angular nature, yet they never make it feel uncomfortable or self-consciously gloomy or artsy. They are a most-expressive group, insistent in their aim to be both thoughtful and entertaining.

So, are these the recordings of the middle quartets to own? It's pretty hard not like competing performances from the Quartetto Italiano (Philips), which have stood the test of time, or the ones from the Kodaly Quartet (Naxos), which sound equally well played and as well recorded. Nevertheless, the Cypress interpretations are sensitive and well controlled, and the Avie sound is beyond reproach.

Producer Cecily Ward and engineer Mark Willsher recorded the quartets at the Skywalker Sound scoring stage in December 2012 through July 2014. There, they used a matched pair of Sanken CO-100K microphones and recorded in 96k Hz 24-bit sound, resulting in some pretty impressive sonics. The engineers miked the performers at a modest distance, allowing plenty of warm, natural studio ambience to flatter the music. The instruments appear clearly delineated and realistically grouped, not too wide apart yet not all squeezed together. It's a fine, lifelike presentation, with a smooth response. Love that cello, too.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa