The Fifth Element #78 Page 2

Third, for the degree of complexity desired, a string quartet consists of the irreducible minimum of players, with no need for outside control by a conductor. The instruments of a string quartet cover the range from high female voice to low male voice while providing opportunities for harmony and counterpoint limited only by the composer's imagination and the players' skills. There is, of course, creative tension between the medium's possibilities for individual expression, and the necessity for a coherent approach to the music. That tension is part of the form's fascination.

Fourth, although I believe that the symphonic masterworks of the age from Beethoven to Mahler would have been highly unlikely but for the continued development of the string quartet from Haydn through Mozart and on to Beethoven, the continuing significance of the string quartet lies not only in its carrying on a venerable tradition, but also in the medium's accessibility, as well as its openness to fresh ideas and to new means of expressing them.

The string quartet provides a living composer with a form within which to create music that is more likely to be heard than is a symphonic work. Symphony orchestras are very expensive to run. Symphony programming (especially in the US), tends to stick to varying blends of tried-and-true "masterworks" and crowd-pleasing showpieces. Given the number of working string quartets out there, the number of programs they play each year, and the perhaps more informed and adventurous approach that many string-quartet fans exhibit in contrast to some fans of orchestral music, I believe that a contemporary composer with a new string quartet is more likely to have it performed, and perhaps recorded, than if he or she were to write a symphony or other major orchestral work.

That practical consideration is apart from and in addition to the essential virtues of the quartet form, among which are clarity, concision, tonal beauty, and, sometimes, a higher level of technical achievement in performance (footnote 2).

Beethoven's Late String Quartets: New Recordings of Special Merit
The first, self-released by San Francisco's Cypress Quartet, attracted my attention because it was recorded in hi-rez PCM using Japanese boutique manufacturer Sanken's CO-100K omnidirectional condenser microphones, whose frequency response is claimed to extend out to 100kHz, which is unheard-of for a recording mike (as distinct from a measuring mike).

The Cypress Quartet seems to have spared little expense in documenting their traversal of Beethoven's string quartets 12–16 and the Grosse Fuge: The recording venue was Skywalker Sound. I've never been there, but am reliably told that the scoring stage is a superb and extremely quiet acoustical environment. The room measures 60' by 80' by 30', with a reverberation time variable from 0.6 to 3.0 seconds. The reverberation time for these recordings is in the area of 2.4 seconds, per engineer Mark Willsher.

In a video chat with Cypress's first violinist, Cecily Ward, I asked how they came to record with such exotic microphones, and at Skywalker, no less. Her answer is sure to warm the cockles of audiophiles' hearts: "From the Quartet's point of view, we're all about what it sounds like. We have always gravitated toward the kind of clean sound we are now known for in our recordings."

Indeed, the Cypress was so taken with the sound of the Sanken CO-100Ks that they bought their own matched pair. Further, while they've experimented with additional, more distantly placed mike pairs, on the theory that they might help capture more of the room sound, in the end, all of the recordings in this set were made in two-mike stereo. My first listening impression was not only of arresting clarity of sound, but also of a certain crispness, both tonal and in the sense that the starts and stops of bowings seemed unusually well defined. (I know—I'm not going to hear well-defined bowing unless the players can play that way.) On further listening, it also seemed to me that while there was no shortage of ambient information, the hall sound seemed to leave, for lack of a better phrase, breathing room around the players and the notes. In terms of sound alone, these are magnificent recordings, but I'm fully aware that some will be inclined to reject out of hand a string-quartet recording made with omnidirectional microphones.

As for the interpretations go, I think this young quartet is among the most impressive I have heard in modern sound, and need not take a back seat to any of the historical ensembles. The Cypress recordings combine the utmost scrupulousness and seriousness with a sense of discovery. These readings are intensely literal, but don't lose sight of the big story. There is no polish merely for the sake of turning in a polished performance, and no beautiful playing merely for the sake of making pretty sounds. Add to that an acceptance of the ambiguity and even contradictions inherent in these works, and you have a winner. Most highly recommended.

The Cypress Quartet's website offers brief MP3 samples of each movement at no charge; each movement is available as a separate 24/96 PCM download for $4. Beethoven: The Late String Quartets is available in 24/96 PCM for $100, or about $60 for the set of three 16/44.1 CDs. I don't think that $100 for the hi-rez downloads is excessive. I know how much money goes flying out the door when you strive for both musical and audio perfection, or at least as close to perfection as is humanly possible.

To test these waters, I recommend downloading, for $4, the Adagio of Quartet 12, Op.127, which for me is one of the old guy's most plangent utterances in any form. When I asked Cecily Ward what her single favorite movement was, she politely dithered for a brief interval (perhaps no one had ever asked her that before), but did agree that this movement was a valid and understandable pick on my part. She then told me that if choosing the Grosse Fuge were not allowed, she'd choose the Alla tedesca of Quartet 13, Op.130—and the Cypress's interpretation is, indeed, charmingly lilting.


But Wait, There's More!
Talk about an embarrassment of riches. I was flipping through one of the pro-audio magazines I receive, and my eye caught a list of nominees for the 2013 Grammy award for audio engineering. What should be on the list but a different set of Beethoven's late quartets. The Brentano Quartet was formed in 1991 and is in residence at Princeton University. I find their disc of Quartets 12 and 13 (CD, Aeon AECD 1110) to be as compelling as the Cypress's traversals, although the recordings are very different in sound and interpretation.

The Cypress recording is, for me, all about clarity and specificity; the Brentano's is all about blend and flow, with a healthy dollop of Romantic warmth—in the recorded acoustic as well as in the playing. The Cypress set calls to mind a top-flight modern concert hall (Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center, perhaps), with well-designed, modern lighting. The Brentano's effort calls to mind an older space and older lighting; perhaps Berkeley's Maybeck Recital Hall by candlelight . . .

Furthermore, the Brentanos' playing is a little more old-fashioned, especially in their use of expressive portamenti, or slides, some of which, from first violinist Mark Steinberg, called to mind Arturo Delmoni's playing. So that's certainly fine with me. Most highly recommended, as well.

Which to buy? Both. I think you need only one good recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (if that). However, certain major works, such as Beethoven's late quartets (Brahms's Violin Concerto is another), justify the owning of multiple worthy interpretations that can illuminate each other, and they and the work itself thus bear more fruit over the long haul. Or, if you're just getting your feet wet in string quartets, buy the Brentano CD and the corresponding downloads or CDs from the Cypress, and get to know both.

We can't spend all our string-quartet listening time peering over the edge of the existential abyss. That's why it's good to have a few CDs of lighter fare. Naxos has released a winner that combines Fritz Kreisler's (somewhat familiar) sole string quartet with world-premiere recordings of Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.'s Quartet in E Minor (which should be subtitled "Memories of Mother Russia"), and of Eugene Ysÿe's Harmonies du soir for quartet and orchestra (Naxos 8.572559,

The Fine Arts Quartet, perhaps the only performing ensemble that has been together longer than the Beach Boys, gives charming, idiomatic performances in quite decent but not top-flight sound. This is a good little "something different" to try, and at a bargain price.

I was so intrigued by the making-of trailer for Bryan Ferry's latest project that I ordered the disc from Switzerland rather than wait for its US release. The Jazz Age, a beautifully casebound CD and book (BMG Europe 53800759 2), consists of a Great Gatsby–era jazz ensemble, complete with plinking banjo and burbling bass clarinet, playing instrumental arrangements of Ferry's greatest hits—no singing. The arrangements are only one step more modern than Dixieland jazz. If that.

The sound is even more curious: rolled off severely at the top and obviously, if not quite as severely, on the bottom. Further, there is very little stereo information, although the recording is not quite pure mono. Dynamics, on the other hand, seem robust. Was this an attempt to mimic the sound of acoustically recorded 78rpm records played back in a room? In any event, the music has curiosity value and a certain retro charm, but I'm not convinced of its staying power. Still, break out the Campari, it's cocktail time! This music to chit-chat by is no competition for the Beethoven, but some fans might love it.

Footnote 2: The Budapest Quartet's recording of the Cavatina of Op.130 is the last piece on the "Golden Record" that went into the darkness of deep space on the two Voyager probes. That, I hope, seals the deal regarding the enduring, even cosmic importance of the string-quartet form.