Monday 27 June 2016

Playing that is a joy as the Cypress String Quartet completes their Beethoven cycle for Avie

The Cypress String Quartet has just completed their cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets for Avie Records with a 2 CD recording of the Early String Quartets, Op. 18.  For the past several seasons, the Cypress Quartet has immersed itself in performing Beethoven on tours throughout the United States and Europe as well as recording all 16 works plus the Große Fuge. The completion of their Beethoven cycle is a fitting celebration of the Bay Area-based ensemble’s 20th anniversary as well as their farewell season.


Beethoven found the composition of his first string quartets difficult, writing of the first edition of his Op.18 No.1 to his friend, Karl Amenda to whom it was dedicated, in 1801 ’Be sure not to pass on your quartet to anyone else, because I have substantially altered it. For only now have I learnt to write quartets properly…’  Op.18 No.2 was also extensively revised and it is considered possible by some scholars that an earlier version of No.3 once existed.

The Cypress String Quartet brings a beautifully judged opening to the Allegro con brio of the String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1 with fine phrasing and tempi, developing through some lovely sonorities and textures, finely paced, rising to some lovely little peaks. The Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato holds a really fine emotional tension, this Quartet finding many quite lovely poetic moments. The music is beautifully shaped, at times bringing a real power and fire.

In the Scherzo. Allegro molto they find a tautness and buoyancy and some wit before an Allegro that is full of lovely, often playful ideas, terrifically brought out by this quartet with some lovely interplay between players.

The opening of the Allegro of String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2 shows this quartet at their finest, always shaping, moulding and phrasing to perfection, finding a light touch. The Adagio cantabile is really most beautiful, with a sizzling central Allegro, these players drawing some lovely sonorities in the longer phrases toward the coda.

The Scherzo. Allegro brings a fine dialogue between players as it moves quickly forward, finely shaped before the Allegro molto, quasi presto where they build some terrific passages finely offset by lighter moments with beautifully controlled dynamics and phrasing.

The Cypresses find a lovely rhythmic tempo in the Allegro con brio of String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, with lovely textures, full of life and energy with some fine little details and some really rich and vibrant passages, quite brilliantly done. These players find a quite lovely melancholy in the Adagio ma non troppo with beautifully shaped little dynamic lifts.

Again there is a lovely lightness of touch in the Scherzo. Allegro, wonderfully phrased as it fairly darts along with such terrific precision. They bring many subtleties to the opening of the La malinconia. Adagio with some fine rich sonorities before moving into a wonderfully fluent and agile Allegretto quasi allegro allegretto.

The second disc in this set opens with the String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. This quartet really draws the listener in from the start of the Allegro with their lovely shaping and phrasing. There are beautifully sprung phrases with a fluidity and delicacy that is quite lovely. They provide beautiful tones and textures before building some fine dynamic passages.  They bring a lovely sonorous flow to the opening of the Andante con moto before revealing some lovely detailed moments. They later find a lovely rhythmic pulse in this wonderfully shaped movement.

The Cypress String Quartet brings a real freedom to the rhythmic sway of the Allegro, a lovely ebb and flow with a central section that arrives so naturally.  They conclude this quartet with a sparkling Presto full of buoyancy and energy, finely controlled with many lovely details.

The Allegro ma non tanto of the String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 brings a nervous energy with some beautifully rich chords. These players bring a real urgency and tremendous guts to their playing with terrific dynamic contrasts, picked up vividly by this recording. They bring a light textured opening to the Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto that builds beautifully, finely shaped and controlled, through some quite exquisite passages.

The Menuetto. Allegretto has buoyant, rhythmic forward flow, finely controlled and phrased with some wonderfully dynamic moments contrasting with fast, fleet, shimmering quieter phrases in the trio section. There is a wonderfully fleet Allegro. Prestissimo, finely controlled and shaped, full of energy.

The Cypresses find a lovely overall rhythmic sweep to the Allegro of the String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5 whilst observing all the little dynamic contrasts, finding many lovely details, full of energy and sparkle. There is beautiful phrasing as the Menuetto moves forward with a fine flow, a lovely delicacy, exposing many fine textures.

There is a lovely sad flow with some exquisite textures as these players weave the Andante Cantabile - Con variazioni ahead through some beautifully shaped variations, finding so many lovely moments. The Allegro dashes ahead, full of varied dynamics with some fine crisp phrasing later. Again their control and lightness of touch is impressive. There are some terrific dynamic surges, full of controlled energy.

This gem of a set is a very terrific way to complete The Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle. Their playing is a joy, drawing the listener in from the start. Their control and lightness of touch is impressive, always shaping, moulding and phrasing the music to perfection.

The recording, produced by the Cypress’ first violinist, Cecily Ward, is very fine, intimate yet with a fine acoustic around the players. There are useful booklet notes.

I haven’t heard the previous issues in this cycle – perhaps it’s time I did.

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