Eloquence has offered a treasure trove of glorious reissues over the years, from the 3 "Universal" labels (Decca, Philips and DG). That well may have begun to dry up, as evidenced by some sub-par releases over the past couple of years. Happily, they have recently taken an interest in the defunct ASV label. This box of Beethoven String Quartets is one of two reissues from the Lindsay String Quartet (later renamed "The Lindsays"), originally released on that label. (The other is the complete set of Bartok Quartets.)
I am dismayed to see the Decca logo emblazoned across the front, back and spine, implying these are something other than what they really are. Nowhere on the box is it revealed these originate from ASV. Inside, one will have to look hard to find ASV mentioned at all; it can only be seen - in miniscule print - on the bottom back of each sleeve, and in the booklet, buried within the recording details. Tsk Tsk. But I digress.
This is the Lindsay's first complete Beethoven set for ASV, recorded over a five-year period, from 1979 - 1983, in two different locations. The booklet lists a remastering engineer; however, it is not made clear if that was part of the original ASV team or newly remastered by Eloquence. In any event, I do not have the original ASV CDs to compare them to. The Lindsays went on to record a second set, but according to some (including the booklet writer), this earlier one is the better of the two. However, listening to it, I can't help but feel it is rather dated by today's standards.
First, the recorded sound is variable. Beginning with the Opus 18s (recorded in 1979), the quartet is placed at a fair distance from the listener, within a very reverberant acoustic, providing a warm, glowing blend somewhat at the expense of dramatic presence. It's not as clean and clear as we have come to expect now-a-days.
By the third series of sessions (1982, Opus 127-135), the digital recording comes closer to the traditional ASV house sound we remember, with a brighter palette and even a bit of edge to the first violin. And while there is more immediacy, the acoustic is still too reverberant. And in the Grosse Fuge, the violins sound like chalk-on-a-chalkboard and screech unpleasantly. The Opus 59s, the last to be recorded, sound to be in the alternate location and the acoustic here is marred with a bit of empty-hall echo. Sigh...
More importantly, while the playing is congenial and musical, it simply can't begin to match the impeccable playing heard from most modern-day string quartets. There is no denying some insecure playing throughout (especially in the 1st violin), and in the Opus 127, for example, I was alarmed to hear the entire group sounding shockingly mediocre and dour. And the screeching violin playing in the Opus 133 (noted above) prompted me to turn it off altogether.
Perhaps I'm not being entirely fair to the Lindsays. I have been listening to some absolutely fantastic, new, digital complete sets from the likes of the Belcea Quartet on Zig-Zag/Alpha Classics, the Miro Quartet on Pentatone, the Dover Quartet (in-process) series on Cedille and the Tokyo Quartet on Harmonia Mundi. (Even the Tokyo's earlier set for RCA is excellent.) All of these recent recordings outclass the Lindsays in every way, particularly in technical accomplishment, freshness, dynamic range and musical involvement. And today's digital recorded sound is uniformly superior in clarity, color and realism.
I recently reviewed another complete set of the Beethoven Quartets (which is not commercially available), played by Kansas City's wonderful Opus 76 Quartet, on their own label. I was fascinated to hear many similarities between it and this one from the Lindsays, particularly with regard to the recorded sound and a smiling graciousness both groups bring to this music. But the playing of The Opus 76 is vastly superior - more accomplished, secure and musically involving. Their love of Beethoven is clearly displayed in the joy they bring to every phrase.
While I enjoyed exploring this set from the Lindsay String Quartet, it is not one I will ever return to in the future. The recorded sound is too reverberant and turns edgy and less natural as it progresses. Worse, intonation issues and screeching violin playing are impossible to ignore and distract from musical enjoyment. As good as the Lindsays may have been in their day, it is when compared to newer groups that one realizes just how far the art of string quartet playing has progressed over the past 3 decades. (Please see my previous blog entry where I discuss in detail my favorite groups and what makes them so special.)
While it is good to have this reissue, I hope the folks at Eloquence can unearth more worthwhile recordings from the great ASV label for future releases.
UPDATE: I also acquired the companion Eloquence set of the Bartok Quartets, recorded in 1981. I had high hopes for it based upon several older reviews which proclaimed the Lindsays were among the best in Bartok. Unfortunately I was quite unimpressed with it. The recorded sound is better than in their Beethoven, but I found the readings to be bland and uninvolving. I can't help but wonder if tempos played a big role in this, as this set stretches out to 3 CDs whereas most are fit onto just 2. The Bartok Quartets are somewhat difficult for me to enjoy anyway, so it takes a very special group indeed to allow me to appreciate them fully. The Lindsays just didn't do it for me.