The Greatest Beethoven Quartets Ever…for 99¢!

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BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets. Grosse Fuge / Colorado String Quartet: Julie Rosenfeld, Deborah Lydia Redding, violinists; Marka Gustavson, violist; Diane Chaplin, cellist / Musical Concepts Classical Library, available for download at Amazon.com HERE for just 99¢

This is the bittersweet story of one of the very first all-female string quartets in America, their up-and-down career which lasted 31 years, and their greatest legacy: the finest performances of the Beethoven String Quartets you are likely to hear.

From the Classical.com webpage:

Founded in 1982, the Colorado Quartet rose to international attention with back-to-back first prizes in the Naumburg Competition and the First Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1983. For the next thirty years, the quartet would remain prominent artists on the American and international chamber music scene before disbanding in 2013. The ensemble was one of the first all-female quartets to gain significant stature.

Founding member Deborah Lydia Redding, who was second violinist with the ensemble from its founding to its last performance, said during an appearance on WNYC’s “Around New York” that the quartet’s name came from the fact that she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and was one of a team tasked with putting together a resident quartet at the University of Colorado. That ensemble subsequently went to the Juilliard School, “and the rest is history.”

The Colorado Quartet was based in the New York City area, became Quartet-in-Residence at Bard College, and appeared as artists at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and Great Performances series. Members also taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the Banff Centre.

The quartet premiered dozens of works, including major quartets by Karel Husa, Richard Wernick, Ezra Laderman, and Tamar Muskal, and many other works, including a substantial number of commissions.

The Colorado Quartet recorded frequently, with releases on many labels, including Albany Records, New World, Fidelio, Mode, and Bridge.

Their recordings for Bridge, one of America’s finest and most exploratory classical CD labels, included Irving Fine’s String Quartet, Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 6, and a piece with guitarist Sharon Isbin. For Mode they recorded Henry Cowell’s String Quartet No. 3, and for Albany they recorded Laura Kaminsky’s Transformations and Jan Krzywicki’s String Quartet. On all these recordings, the Colorado Quartet played but one work; the only album I could find completely devoted to them was an Albany CD of the string quartets of Karel Husa, Ezra Laderman and Mel Powell. . But now for some additional info. Perhaps because they identified so much with contemporary music, the Colorado Quartet was sometimes overlooked for their insightful performances of the standard repertoire. Yet Alexander String Quartet founder Sandy Walsh-Wilson told me, upon hearing of their disbanding, that he was very sorry to see them go. They were so good that they sometimes subbed for the Alexander Quartet and vice-versa. Perhaps it was simply age that caught up with them and led to their disbanding in 2013, but one of their greatest achievements was this set of the complete Beethoven quartets, recorded for the small Parnassus label from Woodstock, New York, for which they also recorded Brahms’ String Quartets as well as a disc including Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 Quartet. The latter won the Chamber Music America/WQXR Award but, for whatever reason, their Beethoven set flew under the radar. I was fortunate enough to be selected to review the last installment in the series, which included the Op. 95 quartet plus all of the late quartets, with the Grosse Fuge firmly in place as the last movement of the Op. 130 Quartet (with the published finale following it, as should be).

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L to R: Marka Gustavsson, Julie Rosenfeld, Diane Chaplin, Deborah Lydia Redding.

To say that the set bowled me over would be an understatement. Here, at long last, was a set of the late quartets to stand comparison with the legendary 1960 recordings by the Yale Quartet for Vanguard. Every note was in place; they played with a rhythmic bounce that was infectious; they dug into each quartet, bringing out just exactly what Beethoven put into it without exaggerating or trying to be too cute by slowing down the Adagio and Andante movements to something resembling a funeral march. I had found my ideal set of these quartets—yet, somehow, locating copies of the rest of their cycle proved elusive, and when they broke up in 2013 Parnassus just deleted all of their recordings from its catalog.

Just how good is this set? Well, let me give you my own journey for an example. My first set of the complete Beethoven Quartets was the one made by the Hungarian Quartet for EMI, issued in the U.S. on their budget Seraphim label. I even saw the Hungarian Quartet play a few of the Beethoven Quartets in person in 1969 at my college (Seton Hall University). After a few listening, however, I began to realize that although their playing was correct and had a good tone, they were just too reserved for Beethoven.

I then sampled a couple of discs in the Guarneri Quartet’s series on RCA Victor, and although they played them with a bit more energy there was something wrong with their sense of rhythm. It was just too foursquare for me; their pacing sounded stodgy, not so much because of their tempi but because of their plodding, clomp-clomp sense of pacing. In 1970 I discovered the Yale Quartet’s phenomenal set of the Late Quartets, but alas, that was all they recorded of the series. Later in the 1970s I listened to the highly overrated Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings for EMI, which I found, and still find, to be a strange combination of blistering tempi and icy-cold playing.

On and on I went. I loved the Tokyo Quartet’s performances of the Middle Quartets, but both the Early and Late Quartets just didn’t have enough of a straightforward zest and drive. In the 1990s I explored the Vermeer Quartet’s series on Teldec. Great playing, good energy, but nearly every tempo in every single movement from start to finish was too slow. After that it was the Kodály Quartet, whose performances I reviewed in my article on Naxos’ Complete Beethoven Box. Quite good, better than the Hungarian, Juilliard, Berg and Vermeer Quartets but not quite getting under the skin of each movement in each piece. Then I went through the Emerson Quartet’s series. I loved their performances of the early quartets, but they just brought the exact same approach to the middle and late quartets: sprightly but not under the skin of the music. I felt the same way about the overrated Tákacs Quartet series on Decca. A couple of years after hearing the Colorado Quartet’s album of the late quartets, I also heard the complete set by the generally wonderful Alexander String Quartet. I liked their early quartets though not on the same level as Emerson, their middle quartets were nearly as good as the Tokyo Quartet, but the late quartets somehow lacked energy. Then there was the Belcea Quartet’s series: plenty of energy, a nice, edgy quality that suits Beethoven, but the violinists’ insistence on playing with constant straight tone robbed the music of richness and made all their soft, sustained notes sound scratchy and anemic. Plus, they dragged out the slow movements to ridiculous proportions; the Molto adagio; Andante of the Quartet Op. 132 is extended from its normal length of about 16 minutes to a ridiculous TWENTY minutes.

So here I am, at long last able to review the Colorado Quartet’s complete series thanks to the anonymous beneficence of either the performers or Parnassus Records—or both—in offering the entire series for sale for a paltry 99 cents. This is clearly the greatest complete set of the quartets ever made, and now I am going to tell you why.

  • Score accuracy: The Colorado Quartet observes all of Beethoven’s tempi exactly as written or pretty close to it. There are no quirky or funny moments in these performances; they’re not trying to score points by over-accenting certain things or wringing pathos or bathos out of the slow movements as other quartets are wont to do.
  • Great tone. Each member of the quartet plays with a light, fast vibrato, which is EXACTLY how 18th and 19th-century string players performed—at least, the best ones. Not for them the scratchy, undernourished sound of straight tone (perhaps this was one reason why they broke up; by 2009, straight tone had become more than regular performance practice, it had become a religion).
  • Perfect recorded sound. I’ve already alluded to the bizarre acoustic of the Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings, and should add that some of the Kodály Quartet’s performances sound as if they were recorded in an empty high school locker room. Producer-engineer Judith Sherman knew exactly how to record this group so that their sound was forward and visceral while still putting a bit of natural room acoustic around them.
  • Consistent style and energy. I’ve already alluded to the fact that these performances by the Colorado Quartet have a wonderful springy “bounce” to the rhythm that no one else has ever achieved, but I should also add that despite their being recorded over a period of years, not just months (the late quartets alone were recorded in May 2004, June and December 2005, and May 2006. Without liner notes, I have no idea what years the other quartets were recorded in), it is they, and not the stodgy Juilliard Quartet, that sounds as if the entire set was made, as the RCA publicity put it, “in a marathon session from dusk to dawn.” The four women of the Colorado Quartet are so laser focused on this music, and the performances just so consistently perfect in feel, tempo and energy, that you almost get the feeling that they did indeed start recording at five o’clock in the evening and just finished at six a.m.

Details abound in these performances that point to their complete absorption of Beethoven’s music and their unique ability to reproduce it in sound—too many, in fact, to discuss or enumerate, but for just one example of a perfect fast movement listen to the finale of the Quartet No. 2 in G. If you can name me even ONE other string quartet who pulls this off with the insouciance and complete unity of sound, as if they were four instruments played by one mind and pair of hands, I’d like to know who. No, not even the Alban Berg or Emerson Quartets were this good, and they were quite good indeed. And in the late quartets, who other than the Colorado Quartet has been able to make the Quartet No. 13 in B flat, the one with the Grosse Fuge, sound this cohesive? Listen to the Belcea Quartet’s recording, which gets a heap of praise. Each movement sounds discrete, almost as if Beethoven had written a suite rather than a unified work which many (myself included) consider to be his masterpiece.

In short, the Colorado String Quartet’s performances of these works are not just excellent; they are perfect in every respect—execution, rhythm, musical style and interpretation. As in the case of some of Toscanini’s Symphony performances or Michael Korstick’s Sonatas, you get the feeling that you’re hearing Beethoven directly, not an “interpreter” trying to score points with his or her cleverness. And in these specific works, which I believe are Beethoven’s most difficult to pull off properly (just read my comments above for the list of failures), Colorado’s astounding readings, which sound deceptively effortless, are just that. It’s like listening to Beethoven without a middle man (or woman).

Fortunately, you needn’t take just my word for it. Here are a few other comments on this set:

The quartet pays meticulous attention to Beethoven’s markings while interpreting them in ways that I have never heard before, I know these pieces extremely well; I have played them, analyzed them, and listened to many excellent performances and recordings of them; yet these recordings reveal elements in the music that I have never noticed before.

Elaine Fine, American Record Guide

Purchased this out of curiosity and, of course, the low price. Having never heard of the Colorado Quartet, I didn’t have very high expectations but what a pleasant surprise! The skill and execution of the Colorado Quartet leaves little to be desired. The interpretations are fairly straight forward, allowing the music to breathe and speak for itself and does it ever! Couple that with very competent recording and it makes for a highly enjoyable listening experience.

I have other performances of the Beethoven quartets by higher profile ensembles (Alban Berg, Tokyo, Julliard, Lindsay, Italian, Guaneri). This set compares very well and would go so far as to say that listening to these recordings offered new insights into Beethoven quartet writing.

To wrap this up, to say that this Colorado Quartet cycle is a bargain is an understatement. Whether you already have other recordings or this is your introduction to Beethoven string quartets, this is well worth your time. Beautiful music that is beautifully played and recorded.

“Goldenrod,” Amazon reviewer

My new favorite quartet cycle…I can’t get over how great this set is. The performances have lots of nuances that make many other sets, by comparison, sound rigid and driven. Perhaps the fact that the quartet is all women is the reason they bring a new sensibility to these works. There are occasional moments of less than perfect intonation, but nothing worse than you would hear in a live recording, so don’t let that deter you. So for now this will be my go-to set.

As others have remarked the sound is excellent, warm and close, as if they were playing right in front of you. I heard inner lines that I never heard in other recordings, which was especially exiting in the Grosse Fuge.

This would be a bargain at 10x the price, and even more (I don’t want to give the publishers any ideas tho :-)). Buy it!

Chris, Amazon reviewer

Whether you take my word for any of this or not, what have you got to lose? Will 99¢ really make or break your budget? This is clearly the greatest bargain in classical music. Nothing else even comes close.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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