In the last few months Deutsche Grammophon has issued a number of recordings by the Vienna Phlharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, under both Leonard Bernstein and Karl Boehm, which might serve as attractive souvenirs of the recent Viennese extravaganza at the Kennedy Center. One of these is a "Fidelio" conducted by Bernstein, with a much more satisfying pair of singers as Leonore and Florestan (Gundula Janowitz and Rene Kollo) than those we heard in Washington. A more unusual item, also conducted by Bernstein, is a performance of Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, recorded in concert, by the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic (2531.077).
The idea or orchestral performances of string quartets is not a new one. Verdi authorized a string-orchestra version of his solitary quartet when the work was new. Orchestral strings have long had a claim on individual movements from quartets by Haydn, Borordin and Tchaikovsky. And barber's famous Adagio for Strings, of course, is that composer's arrangement for the slow movement of his own String Quartet, Op. 11. When we come to Beethoven, we find a tradition, of sorts, identified with some of the most respected conductors of the past, going at least as far back as Gustav Mahler.
Furtwaengler used to conduct movements of the Beethoven quarters; he recorded the Cavatina from Op. 130. Toscanini recorded the two inner movements of the Op. 135 Quartet -- and the entirety of Beethoven's early Septet. Dimitri Mitropoulos included the entire Op. 131 in the Boston Symphony program with which he made his American debut in 1937. Bernstein, then 18 years old, attended the Mitropoulos concert and was terribly impressed; some nine years later, by which time he had made his sensational debut with the New York Philharmonic and taken over the newly formed New York City Symphony, he borrowed Mitropoulos' score and used it as the basis of his own first performance of the work.
Bernstein's new recording (throughout which the audience is amazeingly well behaved and coughless) is dedicated to the memory of his late wife, and he is quoted as feeling "that this performance is the proudest conducting achievement of his life." It is a very impressive achievement, charged with the conviction and intensity we expect from him -- the sort of intensity evident in his Kennedy Center performance of the Ninth Symphony with the same orchestra -- but it is not a replacement of substitute for a performance by a string quartet.
In his annotation, Jack Gottlieb writes that "Op. 131 succeeds in this medium because the inner voices seem to be more audibly delineated when played by a full body of strings. Not only is the counterpoint clarified, but many of the awkwardnesses with which four individual players have to struggle . . . are eliminated." One might question the point about clarification: It seems to this listener that the lines are really clearer in performances by four players, with each voice so much more exposed; and as for their having to "struggle" -- well, in this or all great works I think one wants to be aware of a "struggle," at least to a certain degree. One does not want this apocalyptic music to sound too smooth, to suave, too easily realized. There is, moreover, a cragginess in its nature that is rather inevitably smoothed over by so sumptuous a presentation.
Given these reservations, the performance is a fascinating, and seven a compelling one. It is something one wants to hear again, and perhaps to alternate with the remarkable old Budapest Quartet version of the early 1940 and/or stereo recordings of the work by the Quartetto Italiano, the Vegh Quartet and the Hungarian Quartet. For perhaps no single performance -- or, in this case, no single performing version -- can begin to tell us all there is in such a work.
At the same time, Columbia has initiated what is apparently to be a series of all the Beethoven symphonies performed by a reduced orchestra -- one duplicating or approximating the proportions of Beethoven's own orchestra -- with a simply superb recording of the Pastoral Symphony by the English Chamber Orchestra unbder Michael Tilson Thomas (M 35169; cassette MT 35169). Peter Eliot Stone, in his annotation for this release, points out that the reduced strings allow for more effective balance on the part of single, rather than double, woodwinds; he discusses also various changes in instrumental construction, pitch, and performing practice in general that have taken place since Beethoven's time.
The performance itself, if not "revelatory" in the sense of momentous discoveries about a well-beloved work, does have a singular clarify, but not at the expense of the charm or warmth of heart one associates with the Pastoral. Indeed, these elements are as evident as in any other performance I've heard, while all the delicious wind solos and inner-voice asides come through in a way that suggests the intimacy of chamber music. But the performance does not pretend to transform the symphony into chamber music; it succeeds so well simply because the proportions and balances fits this material ideally -- as do, by no means incidentally, the conductor's ideas on tempo and phrasing.
Finally, a Beethoven work whose familliar scoring is neither expanded nor condensed -- the first of the three "Rasumovsky" Quartets (F major, Op, 59, No.1). -- makes the happiest of impressions as performed by the Smetana Quartet in a stunning new digital recording from Denon (OX-7168-ND). The distinguished Czech ensemble is making its way chronologically through the Beethoven quartet cycle for the second time, and everything offered so far might well stand as a norm against which other performances may be measured. The opening movement of this noble work may strike some listeners as slightly on the brisk side, but it works beautifully, and the entire performance goes with such natural flow and spontaneity that it is hard to believe parts of it were recorded on three different days. In terms of both musicianship and sound, this is as close to ideal as we are likely to come in recordings of the Beethoven quartets.