Shanghai Quartet

Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 59/2 & 74

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The Shanghai Quartet, veterans among Chinese chamber musicians and indeed Chinese classical musicians generally, have recorded the Beethoven String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59/2, before, in the more common pairing with the third quartet of the Op. 59 set dedicated to the Russian Count Andrei Razumovsky. Here they essay the work once again, pairing it with the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74, the "Harp" quartet. The recording, beautifully engineered, was made in Japan and recorded for the Camerata label there. It is accompanied by an essay by a Japanese critic asking the rather startling question of "why Japan, a world leader in string music, has not produced any world-class quartets," which will certainly be news to fans of the legendary Tokyo String Quartet. There is also a general introduction to the two quartets at hand, in Japanese and English (although the two texts seem to be different, not simply an original plus translation). In any event, the Shanghai group offers distinctive readings that will provide collectors with new ideas to consider. The tempos are fast, with the E minor quartet coming in at a minute and a half faster than the already rather brisk Tokyo version. More startling is the approach to the first movement, where the musicians treat the opening material quietly and in a single quick, coordinated gesture. It takes on an almost introductory quality, which is an unorthodox decision in view of the nodes of motivic significance that are embedded at the start. This interpretation pushes the listener's attention toward the overall tonal structure of the work, toward the function of E major in the first movement, and especially toward the massive VI-i resolution in the finale, where E minor is delayed until the very end. The overall mood is restless and even a bit puckish. The "Harp" quartet is also taken briskly, again downplaying the emotional quality that is generally recognized in the work in favor of an emphasis on surprising texture shifts, one of which, it is true, gave the work its subtitle. The group's ensemble in the high-energy lines it creates for itself is unimpeachable. Without necessarily wanting to recommend this as a first recording of these Beethoven quartets, one can decisively commend it to the attention of devotees.

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