If musicality and spirituality are fair measures, this 2008 set of Beethoven's late string quartets by the Orion Quartet is a complete success. Founded in 1987 by violinists Daniel and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy, the Orion Quartet has developed a tight but relaxed ensemble with a strong but refined technique plus a muscular sense of rhythm that gives them all they need to play Beethoven's strenuous masterpieces. Its effervescent virtuosity is as well matched to the fleet tempos of the E flat major Quartet's Scherzando vivace as its vigorous attack is ideally suited to the Grosse Fugue's rigorous counterpoint.
These are, however, only the basic technical requirements for playing Beethoven's late quartets. As Beethoven biographers from Thayer to Solomon know, any quartet attempting these works must be able to penetrate the more enigmatic movements and articulate the deeper mysteries in a language that goes beyond words. Here, too, the Orion Quartet is entirely successful. With an intense tone and unified interpretations, the players clearly understand the spiritual essence of the C sharp minor Quartet's austere Fugue, the B flat Quartet's luminous Cavatina, and the A minor Quartet's solemn "Heiliger Dankgesang" (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) and express it in performances of immense concentration and conviction. Recorded in vivid digital sound in LeFrak Concert Hall at New York's Queens College, this three-disc set is ideal for fans of late Beethoven.