BY JESSICA DUCHEN
Album Review Jerusalem String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartets Op.18, 1-6 by Jerusalem Quartet
Listening to this album is like watching a great tennis player delivering a winning shot, says Jessica Duchen, whose only gripe is a little bit of sameness through this unsettled music.
Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets were the composer’s first venture into a genre that he came to define for all who followed; these six early works would still be tremendous even if he had not gone on to write the groundbreaking late quartets. Ceaselessly inventive, challenging, edgy for their day, the Op.18s are full of the youthful Beethoven’s subversive energy, often hinting at what lay ahead: a few of the figurations later put in appearances in his last quartets, even in the mighty Grosse Fuge.
The Jerusalem Quartet’s recording could be called ‘ace’ for a good reason: hearing it is like watching a great tennis player deliver a winning shot straight down the middle of the court. There’s remarkable perfectionism to this playing: the intonation, the blend of the four instruments, the beauty of tone, the spot-on tempi and the sound quality of the recording are all – well, pretty much perfect.
This is a warm, romantic style of playing that the Amadeus Quartet or its predecessors such as the Busch Quartet would have known and loved. Personally I’ve no problem with an ensemble playing as if the period-performance revolution had never happened; it may unsettle some, but fortunately there is room for all tastes in approaching Beethoven. The missing link, though, at least to my ears, is enough variety of character from work to work and from movement to movement. At present they sound almost a little too comfortable in music that frequently isn’t. The colours are exquisite – but it would be better still if they could find and portray even more of them.
Jessica Duchen writes about music for The Independent and is the author of two composer biographies, four novels and an acclaimed play, 'A Walk through the End of Time'.