As many classical music devotees know, Beethoven originally composed his String Quartet No. 13 with a finale we now know as a separate work, the Grosse Fuge. He replaced it at the urging of his publisher and others because they felt it a mismatch for the work's other five movements. To their apparently delicate ears the mighty fugue's profoundly epic character seemed an overwhelming culmination for an otherwise chipper, elegant work. Though he acceded to their wishes in composing a substitute rondo finale, Beethoven probably never accepted their judgment and would almost certainly have preferred the fugue over the rondo in performances of his work.
In this Nimbus recording, you get both finales. One can therefore program either version of the quartet or include both finales for a marathon seven-movement hearing. But this disc's major selling point isn't quantity--it's quality. The Brandis Quartet has been garnering favorable notices in their Beethoven quartet series thus far, and it's not difficult to see why. The group plays with unfailingly accurate intonation, technical finesse enough to toss off difficulties with seeming ease, and a keen sense of musical architecture. They also have a feeling of oneness to their musicianship that suggests interpretation isn't arrived at through consensus or by domination of one player(usually the first violinist), but rather occurs naturally.
Listen to their joyous account of the first movement, where they convey an exhilaration that makes you question how the music could have been written by a man of colossal inner miseries, a man who had grown completely deaf by the time of the work's composition. Try the group's mesmerizing Cavatina, too; hear their deft control of dynamics that serves to heighten the passionate outpourings and romantic utterances. Notice here, and throughout the performance for that matter, that they never allow detail to blur or the musical trajectory to sag, despite moderate to slightly expansive tempos. They can be rugged, too, even downright fierce, when the score demands it: hear the passage just after the opening of the Grosse Fuge (track 6; 0:55), where the violinist's fervid attack signals the epic thrust of the movement, and his cohorts respond with driving spirit and the last ounce of commitment. Surely this is one of the greatest accounts of one of the greatest quartets ever written.
I well remember attending a concert performance Iof this work, minus the rondo, by the now-dissolved Fitzwilliam Quartet. It, too, was spectacularly played. This Nimbus issue, though a product of the studio, has much of that air of spontaneity, of electricity that you associate with a live concert. It sears the work into the mind, becomes a standard against which to judge other recordings. And while one can obtain excellent performances of these works by the Quartetto Italiano (Philips), Tokyo Quartet (RCA), and Vermeer Quartet (Teldec), this Nimbus disc, which features excellent sound and informative notes, is one that will satisfy almost any taste. Highly recommended.