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Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 95 "Serioso," and Op. 59, No. 3 "3rd Razumofsky." Borromeo String Quartet, Image Recordings IRC 0202, 52:45, approx. $16.00. Available at Millennium Music (Raleigh) or from the performers at http://www.borromeoquartet.org/ .
This is the first issue in a projected traversal by this group, now clearly one of the premier current younger-generation ensembles, of the complete Beethoven quartet literature. As such, it is a somewhat innovative commencement, since it begins with a non-chronological pairing of later works of the middle period, the Op. 74 "Harp" being the more common mate to follow the Third Razumofsky. It is their first recording with the current personnel, and follows on the heels of the Ravel Quartet and Violin Sonata recording that earned the Chamber Music America award in 2000. It seems not undeserving of a prize itself.
The interesting and well-written booklet notes by first violinist Nicolas Kitchen focus not on the historical circumstances of the works' composition, but rather on their notational basis and structural logic and on the history that Beethoven made in the development of this musical form with his use of these components in these works. Kitchen explains, for example, how the half-step relationships and tones in all its movements give Op. 95 its power and drive and make the movements relate to one another. The performance is spirited, brisk, and precise, clocking in at 21:09. [Comparison with some of the competition: the Eroica takes 22:27, the Alexander 21:13, but the Tokyo 21:06, the Borodin 20:48, the Budapest (rec. 1940) 19:58, and the Emerson 18:46, (the Leipzig has not recorded it), so the Borromeo is thus, for all the seeming drive, actually slower than most.]
The Third Razumofsky does not (as do the First and Second) include in deference to its commissioner an identifiable Russian melody, but instead it creates, again according to Kitchen's notes, "sound images," seeking to paint a Russian tableau - Kitchen refers to the expanse of the "endless steppes" in reference to the second movement - and evoke a Russian atmosphere, though without in any way being static. The performance veritably paints with sensual sound in perpetual motion. It clocks in at 31:23. [For comparison, the Borodin takes 32:21, the Alexander 32:17, the Tokyo 31:52, the Budapest (rec. 1946) 31:33, but the Leipzig 30:01, and the Emerson, 29:26, (the Eroica has not recorded it), so here the Borromeo is faster than most, though by no means taking a breakneck speed.]
The booklet notes and the playing both show that the ensemble has thought long and carefully about this music before fixing it indelibly on disk. They give us fine, intelligent, and committed playing. The recorded sound is clear, with a good miking distance and balance. It is a most auspicious beginning for the cycle. Perhaps the next issue will include the Op. 127, played here recently, heard by this reviewer and reviewed by John Lambert in these pages, and subsequently taken on another outing to Tanglewood to fine reviews as well. And which quartet will they choose to pair with it? Even if you own a complete set (or more than one), you should seriously consider starting another with this recording.