String Quartets nos. 6 (Op. 18 no. 6) & 13 (Op. 130, with the “Grosse Fuge’’) (1 CD); String Quartets nos. 2, (Op. 18 #2), 9 (Op. 59 #3), 14 (Op. 131) & 15 (Op. 132) (2 CD)
Artemis Quartet Virgin Classics Here are two recent entries in what is shaping up to be the most engaging Beethoven quartet cycle in recent memory. Each ensemble that comes to this music does so with its own interpretive mien, and the Artemis’s can be described as a fusion of two different quartet traditions: one that emphasizes sonic beauty (like the Alban Berg Quartet) and one that sees drive and intensity as paramount (such as the Juilliard or Emerson). In finding a meeting point between the two extremes, the Artemis has managed the difficult task of finding something new and vital to say about these well-examined works.
You can hear it in the weight and seriousness they impart to the two early quartets from Op. 18, and it’s also present in the slow movements of the late quartets, especially the Cavatina of Op. 130 and the “Heiliger Dankgesang’’ of Op. 132: Both sound plush and gorgeous, yet the quartet resists the temptation to play them too slowly and lose the underlying momentum. But their approach pays its largest dividends in the “Grosse Fuge,’’ which often sounds like an unruly sample of early Expressionism. The Artemis, though, makes it amazingly transparent and logical, like the contrapuntal conversation it actually is.
BACH Richard Galliano, accordion Deutsche Grammophon One might not know it, given the instrument’s unwarranted red-headed-stepchild status, but Bach on the accordion has a venerable history. (The legendary Charles Magnante, for example, opened his 1939 Carnegie Hall concert with the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.) So it’s natural that Richard Galliano, the superb French jazz accordionist, would turn to Bach for his first classical recording. But Galliano, unusually, ventures beyond keyboard repertoire, offering transcriptions of not only the Fifth Harpsichord Concerto (BWV 1056), but also the A-minor Violin Concerto (BWV 1041) and the Concerto for Violin and Oboe (BWV 1060), as well as a handful of Bach greatest hits.
Galliano’s playing is both rhythmically crisp and unapologetically seductive, a sinuous line suffused with an aristocratic melancholy drawn from tango and the French bal-musette: a sigh on the bellows, an easing of the reed, drawing the phrase inward while teasing the music forward. (He makes the tango connection explicit with a bandoneon rendition of the familiar “Air on the G String.’’) It’s an expressivity that turns out to be ideally suited to Bach’s twisting melodies.
Galliano is backed by a warm string quintet for orchestral selections (including violinist Jean-Marc Phillips, who provides vigorous counterpoint in BWV 1060); the chamber dimensions allow individual energies to come through with elegant exuberance. It’s to Galliano’s credit that the instrumental novelty ends up one of the least interesting things about the album. This is gorgeous stuff.
OLD WORLD-NEW WORLD Emerson String Quartet Deutsche Grammophon There are two important words you won’t find anywhere on the front cover of this 3-CD set excluding a paper stick-em: Antonín Dvorák. It must be an arty thing. You’re are supposed to guess it from the title. That’s New World as in “New World Symphony,’’ orchestral staple. But with the first few bars of the String Quartet No. 10, you recognize the joyous, springy step of this Czech composer who spent a few years (1892-95) years in the United States. It’s like being plunged into a forest of pines and birch and aspen, with a warm wind blowing and birds twittering and where it’s rarely nighttime.
This 3-disc collection (priced as if it were two discs) by the world’s premiere string quartet includes Dvorák’s mature quartets (Nos. 10, 11, 13, 14), brightened with two unusual additions: the “American’’ String Quintet, Op. 97 (with Paul Neubauer as the extra viola), written in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where Dvorak spent the summer of 1893, and “Cypresses,’’ the composer’s exquisite arrangement of an early set of love songs (and clearly done for love, not a commission). The box title might lead you to expect the “American’’ Quartet (No. 12) as well, but the Emerson recorded that in the 1980s; these are all first recordings. (Their “American’’ is available on a Deutsche Grammophon Masters CD.)
At this stage in their career (the Emerson players got together in 1976) there is nothing they cannot do. Listening to them is like watching a master painter who knows instinctively where to put a daub of paint. If anything, the naivete of Dvorák’s music inspires a fresh playfulness in their playing. Solo voices sing out with vibrato and portamento, then fall back into an infinite variety of rich textures. (Listen to the interplay of first violin and tutti in Cypresses, No. 6.) The recording acoustic of the American Academy of Arts & Letters in New York provides a warm envelope in which nothing is lost.