I am, as they say nowadays, conflicted about this release. The playing of the Camerata Nordica is highly impressive. What disturbs me is the concept. String orchestra transcriptions of Beethoven quartets, especially the late ones, are nothing new. Toscanini and Weingartner did them – the latter even subjecting the Hammerklavier Sonata, of all things, to the process. The point is, can a string ensemble really replicate the unique intimacy, intensity, complexity and sublime enigma of this music more effectively than the medium for which it was originally composed?
The ‘happier’ or less complicated quartets (if any of this music could be described as uncomplicated) fare better. The Op 127 sounds robust and almost jolly in this ensemble’s hands. It’s when we reach the Finale of the B Flat, Op 130 that the problems set in. The original Finale, the Grosse Fuge, is the most ferocious and terrifying piece by Beethoven (or anyone else, for that matter). I’m not against string transcriptions of the “Great Fugue” per se. Klemperer recorded it early in his EMI career, almost 60 years ago, and the result is, to this day, grittily unforgettable, but the effect of the playing here tends to glamorise it.
The effect on the most intense quartets, Opp 131 and 132, seems to flatten out the emotional turmoil which roils beneath the surface. Similally, these players don’t bring any particular insights to the hymn-like stillness of the slow movement of Op 132.