This article was written by B.H. Haggin and published in  HiFi/Stereo Review in 1963.

You can find our comments and updates (blue text) within the original article.

Note that all price information is outdated and the performances mentioned might not be available in current catalogues.

Kaj Hjorth August 6th 2011       

 

Essentials of a

Chamber Music Library

by B.H. Haggin

 

A prominent critic points out that chamber music can be approached with the same critical and aesthetic equipment that is brought to the appreciation of orchestral or instrumental music, and then presents a series of recommended recordings

 

THE SAME mind of Beethoven that operated in the creation of the sonorous and multicolored textures of a symphony for large orchestra operated also in the creation of the fine linear textures of a chamber work for a few instruments; and the person who is affected by the progression of Beethoven's musical thought in the symphony will be affected also by the progression in the trio or quartet. Specifically, the mind that is heard operating in the piano's opening statement in the first movement of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, in the orchestra's reply, and in the continuing dialogue of piano and orchestra —that mind is heard also in the piano's opening statement in the third movement of the "Archduke" Trio, Op. 97, in the repetition of this statement by the violin and cello, and in the continuing conversation of the three instruments. And the person who is affected by the progression in the concerto will be affected also by the progression in the trio: the expressively elevated theme, its developments in the variations that follow, the return to the theme, and its expansion into a wideranging coda with implications of summation that reach sublime conclusions.

 

BEETHOVEN: Trio Op. 97, in B-flat Major ("Archduke")

 

Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals. ANGEL COLH 29 $5.98.

Coupled with Schubert Trio D. 898 on EMI CDH 7610242

 

Istomin, Schneider, and Casals. COLUMBIA ML 4574 $4.98.

 

A more recent recording Istomin, Stern, Rose. SONY SM4K 46738

The "Archduke" trio can be recommended for anyone starting to explore chamber music, whereas the later quartets might need to be heard several times over to be enjoyed fully.

 

In addition to the operation of the composer, a piece of music offers the operation of its performers—in the Beethoven symphony, the precise and beautiful-sounding working together of a hundred musicians under a conductor. In the trio, the integrated working together of the three solo instruments is more clearly heard in a greater profusion of subtler detail, in which there are an immediacy and intimacy of relation in the playing, a sensitiveness of response, and at times an incandescence, that are like what one hears in the playing of a small group of hot jazz musicians. Such is the historic 1928 performance of the "Archduke" Trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals, in which the three strikingly dissimilar individuals—Cortot with his intimate warmth, Thibaud with his grace and elegance, Casals with his dominating power of tone and phrasing—work marvelously together as a result of the playing they had done for their own pleasure for twenty years. And in the1951 Perpignan Festival performance too—in which the even greater power of Casals's tone and phrasing again dominates over playing by Istomin and Schneider that has less grace but more force than Cortot and Thibaud—one hears a performance in which the first movement is more majestic, the slow movement more profoundly reflective, the finale more brilliantly energetic than in the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals performance.

 

BEETHOVEN: Quartets Op. 127, in E-flat Major; 130, in B-flat Major, 131, in C-sharp Minor; 732, in A Minor; 135, in F Major.

 

Budapest Quartet. Columbia ML 4583, 4584, 4586 4587 $4.98 each; SL 174

(complete set) $24.90.

Also issued as SONY MH2K 62873

 

In his book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, J. W. N. Sullivan

observes that perhaps even Shakespeare never reached that final stage of illumination that is expressed in some of Beethoven's late music.

" That inner illumination is communicated not only by the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony and the concluding movements of the Piano Sonatas Opp. 109 and 111, but by the slow movements of the last string quartets: above all, the expansively elaborate variation movement of the Quartet Op. 132, which carries the illumination to a climax of sheer ecstasy, and also in the variation movement of Op. 127 and opening fugue of Op. 135, whose moving eloquence is achieved with the concentrated brevity of some of Beethoven's late writing. In these works the musical thought proceeds in textures combining the strands of string sound from two violins, a viola and a cello; and what the Budapest Quartet produced in its early years—the integrated progression of the strands of flawless sound that were infiected with unerring musical intelligence and taste—was the finest quartet-playing we had ever heard, and made their performances of the Beethoven works incomparably effective and satisfying. The musical intelligence and the feeling for ensemble operation have continued undiminished, but tone and intonation have deteriorated; and in the newest performances of the last quartets on Columbia M5L 277 and M5S 677, the deterioration is such as to make it advisable to acquire the earlier performances on the five records of ML 4583/7, in which the first violin's tone is still agreeable and the cellist's tone still has its extraordinary dark beauty, fullness, and projective force.

 

SCHUBERT: Quintet Op. 163, in C Major

 

Stern, Schneider, Katims, Casals, Tortelier. COLUMBIA ML 4714 $4.98.

 

From some of Schubert's last writing, as from Beethoven's, we get a communication of life-long experience mastered, profound lessons learned, and final illumination achieved. The communication is most overwhelming in the slow movement of the String Quintet Op. 163, whose other movements have an energy, a dramatic power, a largeness of expressive implication and structural scale that also are comparable with Beethoven's. The Quintet is, then, in every sense—expressive content, style, structure—a great work, and belies the still current idea of Schubert as a Iyricist whose large works are mere garrulous successions of pretty melodies. And it achieves its effect in part through textures that are made denser and more robust by the addition of the second cello to the string quartet.

 

Stern's strangely inexpressive treatment of the first violin part at the beginning of the slow movement, marked espressivo in the score, must be noted in the otherwise superb 1952 Prades Festival performance.

 

SCHUBERT: Quartets Op. 29, in A Minor, Op. posth., in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden"), Op. 161, in G Major.

Budapest Quartet. COLUMBIA ML 4831, 4832, 4833 $4.98 each; SL 194 (complete set) $14.94.

 

The great Schubert is heard again in the powerful and dramatic opening movement of the String Quartet "Death and the Maiden" and its extraordinary perpetum mobile finale, which has an energy and momentum like that of the whirling finale of Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Another such finale ends the Quartet Op. 161, whose opening movement has passages of this supreme melodist's writing which are characteristic in their poignant loveliness, and out of which erupt, characteristically, passages of tremendous dramatic force. The Budapest Quartet's changes of tempo at the beginning of "Death and the Maiden," and its retardations in the opening statements of the Andante of Op. 161, seem to me flaws in the otherwise superb performances.

 
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