Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18, Nos. 1-3 (CD review)

Eybler Quartet. CORO Connections COR16164.

For those of you who don't know them, the Eybler Quartet are a unique group of musicians who play historically informed performances on period instruments. Their Web site describes them as coming "together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler. The group plays on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs. Violinist Julia Wedman and violist Patrick G. Jordan are members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; violinist Aisslinn Nosky is concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and Principal Guest Conductor of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Julia and Aisslinn are also members of I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. Cellist Margaret Gay is much in demand as both a modern and period instrument player. The group brings a unique combination of talents and skills: years of collective experience as chamber musicians, technical prowess, experience in period instrument performance and an unquenchable passion for the repertoire."

As of this album, the Eybler Quartet has five albums to their credit, mostly of music by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal, Backofen, and their namesake, the aforementioned Austrian composer and conductor Joseph Eybler (1765-1846). Here, the Eybler ensemble tackle Beethoven, and, appropriately, they do the first three (Op. 18) of his sixteen string quartets. If you like chamber music and you like Beethoven, there's plenty of both around, but to hear theses early Beethoven quartets played in something approaching what Beethoven himself might have heard (which, given his deteriorating hearing isn't saying a lot), the Eybler group is hard to beat.

The program begins with the String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, the composer's second attempt at string quartet writing (actually composing No. 3 first). Next is the even more scintillating String Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2, followed by the energetic String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. Beethoven wrote all three of them between 1798 and 1800 and published them in 1801.

Eybler Quartet
Of course, one has to adjust slightly to the sound of period instruments. They sound not quite so smooth or mellifluous as modern ones. Yet that only increases their uniqueness, and because the Eybler Quartet play in a delightfully energetic and thoroughly engaging style, the instrumental sound enhances the charm of the playing.

Nor should one be hesitant about the Eybler's historical performances. Although the Eyblers adhere to Beethoven's tempo marks, which most traditional readings do not, these are no hell-bent-for-leather dashes to the finish line; they are well-judged, carefully considered, emotionally coherent interpretations that adhere to the composer's intentions while giving rein to the group's individual character.

So what we have in the Eybler renditions are authentic (or as close as they can get), lively, vigorous, sparkling realizations of Beethoven's scores. They move along at a zippy pace yet don't feel rushed or hurried in any way. The group's articulation is always clean, their ensemble always closely unified, the whole always beyond the particular player. The results are most enjoyable, whether in the sublime slow movements or the sprightly fast ones.

Not that it matters, but I enjoyed No. 2 best of all. Despite its hints of Haydn and Mozart, it appears to me the most inventive of Beethoven's first three quartets. Even though you may find other performances more dramatic or more Romantic, the Eyblers do it justice in every way, never sentimentalizing it or overemphasizing contrasts.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Ron Searles recorded the music at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Ontario in June and July 2015. The sound is among the better I've heard in a chamber or small-group performance. The instruments are a little close, but they are realistically placed across the sound stage, with excellent definition and delineation. What's more important, although they are a bit close up, the instruments are never hard or bright. They sound quite natural, with a shimmer and shine and a warm glow as well, the studio ambience nicely captured.

JJP

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


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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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa