Several readers have asked me about near misses and choices I made compiling 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die that I might look at differently now.
There’s no shortage of those – music can reach us in different ways at different moments. Revisit an old favorite after a long absence, and you may discover it’s not nearly as stupendous as you recall. Or it might seem more so.
From time to time I’ll share some thoughts on this, related to specific entries from the book. Today: The decision to highlight an orchestral transcription of Beethoven’s string quartets rather than a traditional quartet performance (see pgs. 66-67).
I heard lots about this from Ludwigphiles, and often their objection was that the material was written for an intimate four-piece ensemble, and therefore should be encountered that way. This is a perfectly logical, almost unassailable point, and I should say that I followed this thinking in making most of the choices. When I was researching that entry, I listened to a few recordings of the master’s late quartets that have been rubberstamped as “essential,” and while they were all competant and in some cases quite spirited, none brought me into Beethoven’s gorgeously unspooling melodies quite the way the Vienna Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, did. I’d argue that for those unfamiliar with the music, the orchestral version can serve as an excellent point of entry.
But it is just that, a novel starting point. In the last year, I’ve heard a few quartet recordings that are flatout amazing. Beethoven’s quartets from his middle period, particularly the oft-recorded C major, Op. 59, exude a fierce animation, with potent themes tumbling over equally potent elaborations. This sense of urgency comes across magnificently in the 2002 recording of the Takacs Quartet.
His later quartets are knottier and more densely textured – qualities seized on and beautifully expanded by the Quartetto Italiano in recordings released in 1997. The group’s colorful, nuanced reading of Quartet No. 12 in Eflat Major (Op. 127) offers all the ammunition needed for an argument about why music written for four musicians should be played by four musicians. And not 104.