5 de Diapason
This 2017 release by Austria's Quatuor Mosaïques is actually the second in a series; the first box, covering Beethoven's early quartets, appeared in 1994. Whether they thought about the difficult late quartets for 23 years or other projects simply intervened, this volume has been worth the wait. (The middle quartets are apparently still to come.) As before, the Quatuor Mosaïques uses gut strings and historically authentic bows, as well as a tuning slightly below the usual A=440. There are few recordings of Beethoven's quartets made on instruments with aspects of historical construction (not really "historical instruments," for plenty of players use old instruments), and the result is immediately distinctive. The level of vibrato is low, but not outlandishly so. Instead, the most unusual aspect of the performances are their fluidity and grace, made possible by the gentle sound of the strings and by bows that do not dig into the attacks the way modern ones do. Beethoven's quartets are known for their extremity: the almost unplayable Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (which here is made quite a bit more manageable by the historical bows), the vast and almost unthinkable modal slow movement of the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, the bizarrely humorous String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135. Yet such extremity is balanced by passages of great simplicity: Beethoven offers a plethora of straightforward, hummable, folkish tunes, of which the most famous one is not in a quartet but in the finale of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. Here, note the effect that the Quatuor Mosaïques' light touch has on the seven-movement String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, which loses its ponderous qualities and emerges as a kind of suite. The group takes its tempos on the fast side in the main, and in a few places they seem to skate over the surface of the music rather than plumbing its great depths. But in the Grosse Fuge and the Op. 132 slow movement they are very strong. Recommended, and beautifully recorded.