Dip Your Ears... ( 21 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

I had heard mixed things about the Gewandhaus-Quartett's Beethoven string quartets on the little Swiss lable NCA. Or, to be precise, I had heard fairly unflattering things. The tenor was: ‘Why bother?’
The new issue of Fanfare reviews the complete set and comest to a different, much kinder conclusion. I paraphrase: "Not a first, much less 'only' choice - but interesting for those who know the works well and want to hear the works in a different way." Well, Tower Records had some of the issues (the late quartets) in the clearance section, so I picked three up at $5.25 each. The Fanfare review is better than anything I could write... and accurate enough for all I can tell. The point I wish to make is one I have not seen commented upon elsewhere - namely the inclusion of Beethoven's own transcription of his op.14, No. 1 E-major piano sonata for string quartet. No other cycle of LvB-String Quartets I know of includes this oddity, nor - off the top of my head - do I know of single discs that do.

This is a fine semi-precious to enjoy, not just for completists. Beethoven hated most transcriptions of his works and judging from what he had to say about particular transcriptions (of his works - by others), he felt downright raped by them. Still, he did a few himself (the Violin Concerto - twice, the 4th Piano Concerto, the 2nd Symphony, “Die Grosse Fuge”) - and in this transcription he took considerable pride. Rightly so, because without altering the work much (it's transposed up a semitone to F), he manages to make it sound as though it had always been a string quartet (especially the first movement). And for what would have been his first work in the genre, it's a very fine speciment, too!

Whether you love the piano sonatas or the quartets, it is worth looking into it - at least (or especially) at the clearance price. (Last I looked, there were a few more copies at the 2000 Penn Tower.)

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