The Cypress String Quartet‘s new two-CD set of Beethoven’s Op. 18, known as his Early String Quartets, completes the group’s 20-year project of studying and recording all the composer’s string quartets, a form he took from Haydn and sculpted into a body of work the likes of which the music world had never seen – nor has it seen since.
Beethoven said he based the slow movement of Quartet No. 1 on the death scene in Romeo and Juliet. On the Cypress’s recording, the driving figures that burst from the middle section of the slow movement lurch out of the speakers like stumbling ogres. It’s jarring at first. Then it asserts a devil-may-care passion that feels just right. The first violin even supplies a Heifetz-esque romantic flourish at the end.
By finding the shadows in No. 1’s jaunty finale, the musicians put a final accent on the assertion that the Op. 18 quartets already display, as Jan Swafford’s liner notes say, “the kind of singular expressiveness, the unity and dramatic unfolding that would mark all of Beethoven’s mature works.”
On the other hand, the Cypress also find the humor in the straightforward first movement of Quartet No. 2 in G major. Then they make the Haydn-esque, high-spirited final movement feel forward-looking too, sawing its insistent repeated notes remorselessly and accenting its minor-key modulation.
At times they create eerily woodwind-like tones in the slow section of the very advanced finale (“La Malinconia”) of Quartet No. 6. This piece stands as a most fitting liftoff point for Beethoven’s further exploration – explosion, one might say – of the string quartet form in future years.
On this recording, though, it closes Disc 1. Disc 2 makes a fresh start with Quartet No. 3 in D major. The Cypress players create floods of sound in the forte passages of the first movement, presaging the darkness of the Late Quartets, which is especially notable since although the composer designated it No. 3, it was the first one he wrote.
There are shadows in the slow movement’s dark minor key, its fluid sixteenth-note passages spiraling into gloom, then fluttering up into moments of joyfulness and almost (but not quite) springlike optimism. The musicians emphasize woodiness in the striking triplet passages.
There’s nothing lightweight about the brief third movement, which isn’t designated a Scherzo and has the rhythmic feel of the Moonlight Sonata’s springy second movement, written a couple of years later. But it’s the finale that zooms into the supersonic, a carnivalesque Presto that reads here as somehow weighty, even titanic, as it flies by. The ensemble work is remarkably tight yet emotionally powerful.
The Cypress shows great delicacy in the second movement of Quartet No. 4; a jazzy freedom in the quick Menuetto; and agile ensemble work in the zippy final movement. They play the Theme and Variations movement of Quartet No. 5 with a steady lope that’s very pleasing – this lovely exercise should be neither trivialized nor made more than it is.
A sharply etched take on the finale brings the fine two-disc set to a bright finish, along with the Cypress’s project of recording all of Beethoven’s string quartets.
This final installment is a further testament to the composer’s overall genius as well as the forward-pressing aspects of these relatively early but towering works. The Op. 18 quartets are full of harmonic riches, rhythmic intricacy, and emotional complexity, all fully evident under these musicians’ expert fingers. As Cypress violinist Tom Stone says in the video below, Beethoven “was able to take four string instruments and explore a depth and range of human expression that’s unfathomable.”
As far as it can be done, he and his teammates do a fine job of fathoming.