Beethoven: String Quintets Op. 4 & 29

Barbara Buntrock / Leipziger Streichquartett

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Beethoven: String Quintets Op. 4 & 29 Review

by James Manheim

Beethoven's two string quintets are among his least-played major works. This is perhaps understandable in the case of the String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 4, which is based on a serenade from the composer's early Bonn years. That's interesting enough in itself, for it places you inside the expansion of Beethoven's creative capabilities when he came under Haydn's tutelage in Vienna (although this work sounds more like Mozart than Haydn). The String Quintet in C major, Op. 29, was composed in 1800 and 1801, and its absence from the mainstream repertoire is harder to explain. The appropriately named annotator Irmlind Capelle goes a bit far by saying that here "it is sound itself, not concise themes and their elaboration, which now predominates." What's happening is that the quintet is one of those works from the years before the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"), when Beethoven began to experiment drastically with traditional Classical forms. The larger integration of experiment and ambition occurred after Beethoven came to terms with his encroaching deafness, but this quintet, with its 35-minute length, abrupt gestures, and fresh sonorities was among his crucial creative steps, just as much as the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36, and the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27/2 ("Moonlight"). Sample the finale, with its quasi-orchestral texture from which a solo violin unexpectedly emerges. The wiry tone of the Leipzig String Quartet (with second violist Barbara Buntrock), which in their numerous Beethoven string quartet recordings could seem a bit cold, works very well here, and their sharp, bristly readings fit the music to a T, with superb engineering support from the audiophile German label MDG. Strongly recommended.

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