The advertised presence of two Beethoven string quintets on the cover of this Naxos-label release may be confusing for listeners only vaguely aware that he wrote even one. In fact the proffered String Quintet in C minor, Op. 104, is an arrangement of the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1/3, of 1795, begun by someone else and revised by Beethoven during a low point in his life and financial affairs. The centerpiece of the program is the String Quintet in C major, Op. 29, finished in 1802, which is, if not a real rarity, certainly one of the least often performed among the major pieces of Beethoven's maturity. As performed here by the Milwaukee-based Fine Arts Quartet, with second violist Gil Sharon, it divulges absolutely no reason for its comparative obscurity vis-à vis the six early string quartets. In fact, maybe the ensemble deserves credit for finding the key to putting the quintet across. The players cultivate a heavy legato sound that's somewhat counter to fashion for Beethoven's chamber music but works like a charm here. The quintet is one of the early Beethoven works that directly inspired the next generation, which never followed him into the profound structural integration of the middle period. The Fine Arts players get the exact shade of the second subject of the first movement in the very Schubertian key of A major, an unusual enough move for 1802. And the big dimensions of the other movements and their sharply contrasting characters never escape their control. A bonus is the inclusion of the little Fugue in D major, Op. 137, which the booklet notes by Anthony Short (in English only) suggest was a kind of proofreader's bonus. In fact this fugue, also composed in 1817, seems to have been something more: an early sketch or adumbration of the fusion of dense polyphony and a folk-like mood that repeatedly shows up in Beethoven's late work. Once again the quartet's performance is fresh, confident, and committed. The sound, recorded in a Dutch monastery library, is excellent, and at a budget price it's hard to hear this as anything other than the recording of choice for Beethoven's sole string quintet.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|String Quintet in C major, Op. 29|
|String Quintet in C minor, Op. 104|