This is such an offering. The Goldner Quartet is drawn from members of the Australian Ensemble and led by Dene Olding, one of Australia’s most respected violinists. His choice of instrument speaks volumes: he plays a Joseph Guarnerius. The other members are Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola) and Julian Smiles (cello) and they combine to perfection.

Beethoven’s 17 works for string quartet (including the ‘Grosse Fuge’ which was originally composed as the finale for another of the quartets) are heard here as a complete performance cycle, recorded at the Sydney Conservatorium between 19 August and 5 September, 2004.

The recording quality is so fine that the sound of audience applause at the close of the first quartet comes as a real shock. There is absolutely no indication before then that this is a live recording. No coughs, no fidgeting, no latecomers – this is as all concerts should be but so rarely are.

But the live nature of the recording is what marks it out. For as we progress through the eight CDs, through the relative simplicity of the first six quartets to the sudden leap in maturity of the three Razumovsky quartets, and finally to the profound gravid meaning – yet often again apparent simplicity – of the final quartets, we really do feel that we have been a privileged participant in a journey made over the course of these recitals, by both the quartet and its audience. 

I have some very fine recordings of individual collections of these quartets. But none give this feeling of journey through a composer’s life and intent, expressed through these compositions. Beethoven was at his greatest in his chamber music, and I feel these, along with his piano sonatas, are the summit of his art. This quartet has a harmonious mellow tone which can suddenly unleash immense power. Their lustrous burnished tone is captured sensationally well here – the acoustic is close and accurate but also warm and lively.

If I was to single out individual quartets here as examples of the Goldner Quartet’s finest playing, it would be perhaps the Opus 74, the oddly-named ‘Harp’ (in which, strangely enough, the strings summon up the spirit of an organ more than any harp), and the extraordinary String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 130, whose 44 minutes encompass a musical universe of themes and emotions. And the three Razumovsky quartets stand as a mighty single entity, echoing the strength and passion of some of the most formidable of the piano sonatas. 

But the strength of this set is the manner in which it presents the entire cycle, and the journey we share, as something to treasure. Ignore the unfortunate ugliness of the prosaic packaging. These performances are beauty enough. 

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