IN APPROACHING any "integral" recording of the Beethoven string quartets, my touchstone has always been the F major, Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the three so-called "Rasumovsky" Quartets. Perhaps because this work seems to represent all that is noble and compassionate in Beethoven's music in its most congenial frame--or perhaps simply because it was the first Beethoven quartet that wholly fascinated me when I was a teen-ager, in the unforgettable circa-1940 recording by the Busch Quartet. In the newest recording of this unique cycle, by the Talich Quartet of Prague, Op. 59 No. 1 receives a performance closer in spirit to the Busch than any other I have heard; what makes it a great performance, though, is the degree of integrity and individuality it exhibits within that general stylistic frame, and in this respect it reaches the most exalted level.
The Talich Quartet was founded in 1962 by Jan Talich, nephew of the great Czech conductor Va'clav Talich; he was first violinist until 1970, when he invited Petr Messiereur to take his place and he himself moved to viola. All four players (Kan Kvapil is second violinist, Evzen Rattay, the cellist) are probably still under 50; the ensemble they constitute is, from the evidence here, one of the supreme chamber music entities of our time. We must wonder why we have heard so little of it, and at the same time understand why we should have a complete Beethoven cycle from this source.
A Busch-like expansiveness is apparent throughout the 17 works, but an expansiveness tempered by a still stronger sense of inner tension. This, indeed, is what sustains the rather deliberate tempos generally favored by Talich. Momentum and pulse are never lost, and an inescapable emphasis on the lower range--understandable enough, when the viola and cello are so beautifully played--creates an aura of burnished richness that serves to justify the deliberate pacing but would in fact be vitiated by an approach even hinting at impatience or breathlessness. Substantial, insightful, spiritually and sensually fulfilling, these are uncommonly satisfying performances of the individual works and the cycle as a whole.
The recordings were made by the French company Calliope between November 1977 and June 1979, and are available through import dealers in the customary three sets: the Op. 18 Quartets (Calliope 163133, three discs); the Middle Quartets, Opp. 59, 74 and 95 (163436, three discs) and the Late Quartets--Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135--and the "Grosse Fuge," Op. 133 (163740, four discs). The annotation, regrettably, is in French only, but the sound is as warm and finely detailed as the playing itself, and the pressings are exemplary.
The "Grosse Fuge" is performed in its original position as finale of the Op. 130 Quartet, and is followed on the same side by the replacement "Allegro." Other recordings have been presented this way, too, but my own feeling is that Beethoven knew what he was doing when he separated the "Grosse Fuge" from Op. 130 and offered it instead as an independent work. In any event, anyone playing the record can make his own choice; the disc containing this music is another of the high points of this very distinguished release.
Some listeners accustomed to more driving tempos and primary focus on the "high end" rather than the lower instruments may find that the Talich performances take a bit of getting used to. (Actually, it is not so much an emphasis on the "low end" here as simply a more judicious balance among all four instruments than is usually heard.)
After several hearings, these recordings seem to wear better than any others, and more strongly invite repeat hearings--not Op. 59 No. 1 alone, not the "Grosse Fuge" or Op. 130 alone, but each and every work. There have been other splendid sets, and more than a few exceptional accounts of some of the individual quartets, but this, more than any of its predecessors, strikes me as the indispensable one.