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The Lindsays: Peter Cropper, Ronald Birks – violin, Robin Ireland – viola, Bernard Gregor-Smith – cello
ASV DCA 1111/2/3/7
4 single CDs, £££

TPT: Disc 1: 76'24; Disc 2: 66'07; Disc 3: 58'08; Disc 4: 69'16

I may be able to claim a tiny bit of credit for the fact that these recordings exist. I spoke to Peter Cropper, leader of the Lindsays, after a magnificent cycle of the Beethoven Quartets at the Wigmore Hall a few years ago and said the group should re-record the cycle. "No," he said. "We did it in the late '70's and that set must stand."

Maybe the thought nagged away at him. And here are the first four CDs of a new cycle. More likely than my humble suggestion is the fact that the Lindsays are today a very different group to that of over twenty years ago. They have a new viola player (not so new now), and they are no longer the Lindsay Quartet but the Lindsays – a subtle but significant change reflected in the cover pictures of the four in colourful open-necked shirts. Exactly how they perform, in fact, as if to say 'Don't be frightened of chamber music'.

And don't be frightened of Beethoven. How I regret my decision to leave Beethoven's quartets until I reached the age of 50, as if somehow I couldn't be prepared for them until then. Give me my time again and I'd start listening to them at 20. What a waste of 30 years!

To judge this new set against the earlier one, you can do no better than turn to the Lindsays' account of the most poignant bars in all Beethoven's quartet writing: the Cavatina of Opus 130. I remember when I heard this in the performance at the Wigmore Hall. Peter Cropper made his violin weep; his face, always expressive, made him look as if he was about to weep. I thought I was about to weep. No wonder Beethoven said the Cavatina caused him more pain to write than anything else. In this new set, the Lindsays do something I have never come across before: they give two accounts of the Cavatina, followed first by the original final movement, the Grosse Fuge, and the second time by the replacement final movement. As is pointed out in the CD notes, the Lindsays believe "the alternative finale is better heard following the Cavatina than immediately after the Grosse Fuge." Programme your CD player and you can hear Opus 130 as it was originally composed, as well as with the new final movement.

The two Cavatinas differ interestingly: the first is slower, by nine seconds, than the second, and the weeping central section is poignant beyond words. Listening to it, I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes: Beethoven, totally deaf, in failing health, trying to cope with a nephew who would soon attempt suicide…it is impossible to listen to dispassionately. And when the Grosse Fuge breaks in, it positively explodes.

It is in that weeping section, I am sure, that the Lindsays make up the nine seconds in the second account. It is just that touch less poignant; emotional still, but the emotion of a man not in utter despair. In other words, perfectly pitched for the almost light final movement, which replaces the fugue and turned out to be the last complete piece of music Beethoven was ever to compose.

A final word on the Cavatina. Both versions are considerably slower than on the recordings the Lindsays made in the late seventies, and, interestingly, their playing then was more assured, less doubting. Isn't that the whole point about Beethoven? The more you think you've understood everything, heard everything, in a particular composition, the less you truly know.

The other three CDs of this first issue comprise the Opus 18 quartets. Here – by contrast to the Cavatina – speeds are universally quicker than in the earlier recordings, but nothing is lost. Quite the opposite. The Malinconia at the start of the fourth movement of No. 6 has all the mystery it needs and the constant variation in dynamics keeps you hanging on for the next note. When the cello asks its series of questions just before the Allegretto, the gradual crescendo is spell-binding.

The Adagio of No. 1 is crisper and more taut than in the early recordings, as if the Lindsays know this is a young composer having his first sustained attempt at quartet writing. Questioning he may already be, but the questions are not as big as they will become later.

This is particularly true of the Adagio cantabile of No. 2. It is played with the warmth and certainty of the young Beethoven already finding the voice that would later produce the greatest masterpieces ever written for string quartet.

And you have to be grateful to the Lindsays for the inclusion of the quartet arrangement Beethoven made of his Piano Sonata, Op.14 No. 1 and the String Quintet Op. 29, with Louise Williams providing the extra viola as she did in a recent performance with the Lindsays at the Wigmore Hall.

The Lindsays, I believe, are the finest British quartet, and one of the finest in the world. I admit I am biased – I once played second violin to Peter Cropper in our school quartet: he went on to greater musical things; I did not! There is an edge to their playing. They play – as indeed Peter once told me – from the heart, not the head. Most artists will tell you they do not like recording: the CD lasts forever; they dare not take risks. The Lindsays take risks, even in recordings. With Beethoven, you have to.

I can hardly wait for the Razumovskys and the remaining middle and late quartets.

John Suchet  

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