A deep intake of breath cues the first of Beethoven’s (three) Razumovsky String Quartets, written in 1806, commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Quatuor Ébène setting off at quite a pace, albeit without a suspicion of rushing. Indeed the opening movement of Opus 59/1 proves to be an engaging marriage of the lyrically intense (the cello sings its earworm) and the rhythmically chiselled, virile yet probing, and with precise ensemble and spot-on intonation, also a persuasive ebb and flow.
The recording presents the foursome upfront in a generous acoustic; every note, every interaction, and each dynamic and tone-colour made vivid without hectoring. Maybe the second movement is too pushed-along and spiky, although there’s no doubting the excellence of the playing, but that this group can also do broad and spiritual is brought to the fore with the Adagio molto e mesto: time stands still as important matters are considered ... then the attacca into the Thème russe of the Finale brings light and lively relief.
The players’ account of Opus 59/2 is no-less fine. One caveat though: the second half of the first movement is not repeated. Beethoven’s request is often overlooked (if not by The Lindsays) and is needed to balance the subsequent expansive Molto adagio (Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento). I trust the omission is an artistic decision rather than governed by a disc’s total time, for we are talking an extra three-and-a-half minutes and CDs of eighty-plus are now quite common.
Ultimately though my admonition is countered by the overall high quality of the Ébène’s account, for following the infectious energy of the Allegro (its mysterious curves not overlooked) the ‘sentimental’ slow movement is rapturously expressive. The third-movement Allegretto is elegant, although swelling contrasts abound, and embraces a further and very attractive Thème russe, whereas the Finale is a high-kicking Cossack number, dispatched with unstinting vigour (if a little pressured) and togetherness.
If Erato’s annotation hadn’t mentioned “live”, then you just wouldn’t know there was an audience present. The plan is that Quatuor Ébène will record all of Beethoven’s Quartets at concerts in seven locations – from Philadelphia to Paris – and this starter release suggests that the catalogue will be enriched by the enterprise. Beethoven 250 beckons.