Two recent sets have caught my attention - one is complete; one has just begun. One has some production issues which are of concern; the other is off to a fabulous start. And certainly, there is no better way to spend a cold, wintery February than staying inside listening to Beethoven!
Beginning with the Belcea Quartet's complete set, reissued on Alpha-Classics, I read with interest some reviews on Amazon criticizing the packaging. I normally don't pay much attention to such matters; it's the music that counts. So I ordered the set, which has received high marks musically, and offered at an attractive box-set price. And much to my surprise, I find there is some validity to the complaints, which does indeed detract from its overall enjoyment. (For several reasons, actually.)
It's worth noting these 2011-2012 recordings originate from Outhere Music France, which is the parent company of several small independent labels, including Alpha Classics and Zig-Zag Territories. These quartets first appeared in two 4-disc sets on Zig-Zag in 2013. Then Alpha-Classics reissued them complete in one box in 2016; and oddly, again in 2019, with different cover art. Both sets are identical in layout and number of discs. The latter is the subject of my review.
I purchased this 2019 box set, brand new, in February 2021. And despite some reviewers stating the packaging has been improved since its initial release, mine proved to be exactly as most have described it - with envelope style sleeves, coated with a sticky substance, holding each disc inside. You literally have "crack" open the sleeve wide enough to get your whole hand in there to firmly grasp the disc and yank on it until it becomes unstuck. It doesn't just slide out, it has to be manhandled out of there.
Not only that, in my set, one of the 2-disc sleeve enclosures is misprinted, duplicating another sleeve with the contents (i.e. Discs 5 & 6 and their track listings are printed on both the enclosures for 5 & 6 and 7 & 8). Fortunately, the CDs themselves are correct (i.e. discs 5 & 6 in one, and discs 7 & 8 in the other), but the second set is mislabeled. Fortunately, I can find the correct track listings in the enclosed booklet. But what a colossal production blunder. Does Alpha-Classics have no quality control?
And that's not all (while I'm at it). The layout is annoying as hell. These are not presented in chronological order, or in any discernable order whatsoever. They are randomly spread over the discs with no apparent logic. (Take a moment and examine the picture above displaying the layout and help me understand it.) Perhaps they are merely maximizing playing times and minimizing the number of discs to save on production costs? I have no idea. But I just shake my head at it.
But, what's most important are the performances. And while they are mostly wonderful, I find this group turns a bit too aggressive and grainy in forte passages, and unpleasantly gruff in fortissimos. In these passages, they are attempting to produce a sound larger than life for a string quartet, resulting in bowing which sounds like they're ruthlessly sawing away at it. It is most frustrating, coming in stark contrast to the sweetly singing playing elsewhere, where their beauty of blend can be gorgeous. Certainly, Beethoven's writing can - and should - be vigorous at times, and I welcome clearly defined dynamic contrasts. But it doesn't have to be so aggressive. The close-up recording exaggerates the extremes in dynamics and had me adjusting the volume level all through. While this recorded perspective affords startling presence and body to their sound, it unfortunately tires the ear in the long haul, and exacerbates the moments of ugliness in their playing.
If anyone from Alpha-Classics happens to read this, please know I will seriously hesitate before purchasing another CD on your label. This production is a mess. Tsk Tsk.
(It looks like this box-set is no longer available, just within the few weeks since I purchased it. Perhaps Alpha-Classics has withdrawn it and is rethinking it?)
Moving on to a much more satisfying experience, the first volume from the Dover Quartet on Cedille Records is fabulous in every way. They begin with a 2-disc set containing the six Opus 18 Quartets - in order. The playing is absolutely marvelous - fresh, musical, inspiring and powerful (but never aggressive), and beautifully recorded at a perfect distance within a warm acoustic. Bravo Cedille Records! I simply cannot wait until the next installment.
As a matter of fact, their Beethoven is so good, I wanted to hear their disc of the Schumann Quartets while I wait. But it seems to be out of print. Bummer. Fortunately, I already have their two discs of clarinet quintets with David Schifrin (both on Delos) and their single disc of selected Mozart quartets/quintet is still available on Cedille.