Classical Sundays

Sunday 27th December

December 27, 2009

lindsays_beethovenSo I went back to work today, an early start after a couple of days laying in bed until late certainly kickstarted me in many ways. Apologies for the lackadaisical posts over the last few days. As I wrote yesterday, since Christmas Eve I have been listening intently, and in chronological order to the eight disc set of Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets recorded by The Lindsays, a well respected British quartet who retired a couple of years back, but over their forty year history built a strong reputation in the chamber music world. Alas, in my ignorance, I had not heard of them at all before this year, when their box set of Schubert’s quartets and quintet really caught my attention. This box of Beethoven quartets has grabbed me just as much over the past few days. Before saying anything about the music (is there anything I am qualified to say about it? I doubt it…) I should state that I find it really helpful that so many box sets of good quality classical recordings are available right now at ridiculously low prices. I picked up this eight CD set for just £20 in an HMV sale, and this is not the first box I have bought in this way. For years CDs have been heavily overpriced, and it has been nice to see over recent years that the classical market at least has caved in to the pressure of other media by cutting prices across the board. Whether this has been good for recordings of new classical music or not I am not sure, but if its classic recordings of well respected music you are after now is the time to buy them.

So I have so far made it through the first three discs of the set twice over, which cover the first seven of Beethoven’s quartets. Seven is a bit of an odd place to try and stop and write a summary so far though, as his first six quartets were all written during the last twelve years of the eighteenth century directly for a Viennese prince with a name far too long to type out there. These first six quartets are all listed as Op.18, partly because they were all written for the same patron, but also because no one is quite sure of the exact order in which they were composed. The seventh quartet is the first of three written for a Count Rauzumovsky, was written five years after the first six, and has a quite different feel to it, so I will leave that one for a further post collecting later quartets.

I should say at this point that although I now have four or five collections of the late quartets, which are clearly the most emotive and powerful of the works, I only have one other set of the earlier quartets, played by the Alban Berg Quartet. The difference between that set and this by The Lindsays is remarkable. Certainly the recording quality on the latter is slightly better, crisper and more attentive to sudden dynamic changes, but it is also quite a bit quieter. So the way this music really leaps out of the speakers at you comes completely from the way the music is played. As with the many versions of Schubert’s String Quintet I went through before coming to really enjoy The Lindsays’ version there is a real feel of bright, powerful passion to these realisations.  Right from the opening movement of the first quartet here the playing is really punchy, aggressive even, with each shift in direction really felt by the musicians and therefore the listener. Every big statement in the music leaps out at you with a remarkable intensity that just isn’t there on the Berg. Not even close.

The first four quartets each make use of sonata form in one or more movements. In the case of the fourth quartet I think I even spotted this before reading the liner notes! All of these compositions though have a way of  suggesting melody just enough to hook you into the piece, lead you into its recurring forms, begin to expect certain shapes and sounds, but also keep the melodic lines short and separated enough to give the music an intricacy and depth. In places though the music is just beautiful, nothing else, just lovely to listen to. The tragic Adagio that forms the second movement of that first quartet is played here with such rich intensity that I found it hard to  cook while the music played. I sat down on more than one occasion to do nothing but listen with eyes closed. There are several silences of three or four seconds in this music for crying out loud…how much of this is in the original score and how much The Lindsays’ dramatic reading of it?

These first four quartets really surprised me. I was expecting a more jaunty, dancey style of music more fitting with their eighteenth century timescale, but these four pieces for me are almost the equal of the later great works. (Though having not got to The Lindsay’s portayal of those pieces yet I may take that statement back entirely) The fifth quartet has a slightly more rhythmic, bouncy feel to it that, while still quite nice feels slightly less suited to The Lindsays’ way of playing. The music powers along as if on springs, but the intensity feels less directly emotional, more tied up in the tempo of the music, if that makes any sense at all.

The sixth quartet came as a bit of a shock, perhaps more what I was expecting from the first four. It sounds considerably more traditional, European 18thC music; highly danceable, sprightly little tunes that come and go in speedily played little sections that each come to their conclusion with a predictable flourish. I am much less of a fan f this piece than I am the earlier quartets. I think what I am learning with this area of music is that I tend to prefer it when I can tap into some kind of emotional connection with the composer, even if it is only an imagined one in my head. This may come as a surprise to many people that know my history with music and composition in particular. Perhaps there does not seem to be much heart-on-the-sleeve emotion to be heard in the work of the Wandelweiser collective or Feldman, but I think that really there is, and the connection here is easy for me to spot. I am talking about a certain presence in the music here that is there in The Lindsay’s playing of Beethoven and Schubert, there in Duos for Doris, there in Shostakovich, even Mahler, but also there in Nono, or For Bunita Marcus, or even just Tommy Potts’ heartfelt Irish fiddle improvisations. This is all music played with great depth, passion, motivation, purpose…

I will write more about my explorations through this box set next Sunday, but I have really enjoyed this last few days listening. Maybe just having some peace and quiet around the house and the opportunity to relax after a hectic time has an impact here, or maybe this music would affect me like this at any time. I am very much looking forward to the second half of the set, and also to tracking down The Lindsays’ other recordings, and in particular their renditions of Bartok’s string quartets. Tomorrow though i return to improvised music, or field recording, or something else that quite frankly has a lot to do to follow the last few days of listening.

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