DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON must have more string quartets under contract than any other recording company, and several have been active lately. Some of their recent efforts are noted briefly below.
BEETHOVEN: Late Quartets. The LaSalle Quartet (DG 2711 018; four records). These final works of Beethoven, beginning with his Opus 127, rank with the greatest and most inexhaustible works of the creative imagination, and presumably that is ample reason for an ensemble that specializes in modern music to add them to its recorded repertoire; performing them is a sort of rite of passage for a quartet.There is also the fact that this music, more than any other by the composer, gives a direct glimpse far ahead of its time into the 20th century, with its deep introspection, its volatile moods, its freedom and often eccentricity of form, its uncanny sense of direct and very intense communication to the listener. The music is greater than any possible performance, and the enthusiast (if moderately affluent) will have more than one set on hand to expose its various facets.
This set is exemplary in all measurable qualities - balance, intonation, the integration of the four voices into a seamless whole, and superb in the sense it conveys of the musical as a natural process, each phase growing organically out of what has gone before and adding to it. In some places, devotees of other emsembles may point out a kind of literalness and understatement that will not suit all tastes, but this is a legitimate approach, reflecting, perhaps, the ensemble's orientation to the modern rather than the romantic repertoire, and it works extremely well. The eloquence is all there in Beethoven's notes, this interpretation implies, and when they are performed as directed, no extra muscle need be applied. This set is a distinguished achievement, though one that will not be equally pleasing to all tastes.
MOZART: Quartets in G, K. 387 and D minor, K. 421. Melos Quartet, Stuttgart (DG 2530 898). Nothing much need be said of this disc, except that it contains exquisite music, superbly performed.
BARTOK: Quartets No. 2 and 6. Tokyo Quartet (DG 2530 858). If you're in the market for Bartok quartets, you are expected to want the whole set; that's the way they have been issued in the four versions available from RCA, Columbia, Vox and Telefunken, and it is probably the ultimate format we may expect for DG's new competing entry. But the appearance of these two quartets outside of a complete package serves as a happy reminder of how good they are. I for one have not played them as often as they deserve (my personal favorites are Nos. 4 and 5), and the arrival of this record has impelled me to look at them freshly. They are still, perhaps, slightly below Bartok's two best works in this form, but so is every other string quartet composed in this country, and they are works of great power and integrity, tremendous emotional range and fascinating structure - certainly among the classics of our century. A large part of the reason for this re-evaluation can be traced to the eloquent, technically brilliant performances by the Tokyo quartet, which surpass all other readings of this music in my experience and rank with the finest quartet performances I have every heard. I await eagerly a further exploration of this composer by this group.