In an email to me, Keith Stanfield, first violinist of The Opus 76 Quartet, explains the origins of this miraculous live Beethoven set:
"We made these live recordings during the [2020 Covid-19] Pandemic, when there was no other live music happening. We had prepared 3 years for the 250th Beethoven Anniversary, and I wanted to wait and see what would happen, rather than cancel 3 months in advance. It turned out in Kansas City that our 6 week festival of all Beethoven’s String Quartets was able to take place on schedule. We had to use the Cathedral of the Immaculate conception, and were limited to 50 people in a marble encased massive church which has a normal capacity of 1300 I believe. It may be more.
KPR [Kansas Public Radio] who wanted to broadcast live would not send a recording engineer due to COVID concerns, so I had to buy the equipment, FaceTime the engineer to ask about placement of the stereo mic (we only had money for one Rode NT4 and the Tascam DR70) and handle the entire process ourselves.
I am not a sound engineer or record producer. But, we were able to capture radio level sound frequency ... by following their instructions - and what you hear is exactly what happened on those Saturday evenings. The broadcast version had some programme notes KPR wrote prior to each work. We were able to buy a massive rug to deaden some of the marble reverb and stick the microphone close to the group. We had no control over the air system - but it was so hot in August in KC that we would have given up the ghost many times during the cycle without it.
In any case, we were keen to make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit as it were - and in particular I was determined that Beethoven, greatest of all composers - should be honored in his anniversary year, despite the most Beethovenian of circumstances. The recordings I guess are recordings in the most literal sense. Registrations of an event that will (hopefully) never be repeated - a 6 week live Beethoven Cycle in the middle of a global Pandemic - quite possibly the only one in the Nation in 2020. People came, many for whom this was their first classical experience (there was no other competition) and each night was sold out moments after being made available."
The above information is included here to provide a background to this set of recordings. I find it absolutely fascinating and quite incredible. Can you even imagine being the first violinist and suddenly finding yourself having to handle all the recording logistics yourself, including finding microphones, at the last minute, in order to make the recordings happen? And then have the wherewithal to sit down and actually play all this music. That is dedication!
Listening to the CDs, sonically I hear exactly what has been described as to the recording process. They are "live" in nearly every sense of the word, including applause before and after each and every quartet, plus an audible sense of "presence", as if sitting in the audience quite a distance away from the quartet, and with audible air conditioner blowers in the acoustic, etc. In many ways it reminds me of the days of vinyl LPs, with surface noise, clicks and pops, etc., all of which adds a sense of "being there". And other than the applause, the audience is otherwise absolutely silent, obviously in rapt attention to the music. There is mercifully no coughing. And any rustling between movements has been spliced out.
And there is definitely an air of "occasion" about it all.
There is also massive reverberation. But, for the most part, it does not swamp the musicians. There is sufficient focus and presence to give a reasonably clear vision of the performances. If anything, the huge acoustic lends a glowing warmth and blend to the group as a whole, which is not unattractive. And truthfully, the playing is so good, the acoustic can be easily overlooked.
But most of all, the one statement from Mr. Stanfield which strikes me as the most cogent is: "Beethoven, greatest of all composers, should be honored". And that is the single most prominent characteristic of these performances which predominates every measure of these scores - the Opus 76 Quartet exhibits an unending, profound love of Beethoven. It is evident everywhere in their playing.
If I had to describe this set in one word, it would be "smiling". There is a joy in the music - and enjoyment in the playing - which provides much pleasure. These may not be the most "commanding" readings (due in part to the rather distant recording perspective), but they are certainly some of the most musical. And gracious.
There is also an impressive overall accomplishment to the playing itself, from all four players. These were recorded over just a 6 week span (August 15 - September 19, 2020), and again, are live performances with no recording engineers on site. So there were no editing or patch-up sessions. Thus there is nowhere for less than perfect playing to hide. And I heard very few instances where a touch-up might have been beneficial.
A couple of specifics regarding the playing and performers are worth noting. There is no denying the excellence of Keith Stanfield's leadership as first violinist. His tone is vibrant and rich, sweetly singing and rapturous, and his playing is assertive. Significantly, though, for these live performances, the two violinists traded off playing first and second variously throughout. While I could almost always hear when Mr. Stanfield was "back on first", it is remarkable how effortlessly and competently Zsolt Eder was in assuming the first position. (The back cover identifies them for each Quartet.) Also of note, especially in the Opus 59 Quartets, cellist Sascha Groschang certainly makes an impression with sweetly singing lines, with nary a hint of graininess. Lovely indeed.
In sum, The Opus 76 Quartet has indeed achieved their goal to "make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit". The enthusiastic audience certainly thinks so, as evidenced by the applause heard on these recordings. This complete set is a major achievement, in so many ways. This group deserves a record label to bring their talents to a wider audience.
Finally, regardless of the order in which they were performed, the Quartets are helpfully laid out in chronological order, over 9 CDs. Complete sets often stretch out to 10. This tells us something about tempos. The Opus 76's tempo choices are just about perfect in every instance. Allegros are jubilant, Adagios are flowing with natural momentum, never sluggish, and all those in between are fresh and alert. Regretfully, there are no track listings or timings included, which I definitely missed. Nor are there any liner notes. But other than that, I have no complaints with the production, as each CD is clearly labeled with the works it contains. This set is available online at Opus76.org.