EHNES QUARTET: Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 & Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

AllMusic Review by James Manheim  [-]

Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, is textually knotty in a way that few other Beethoven works are. Beethoven originally ended the work with the radical Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, heard at the end of this program by the Ehnes Quartet. It mystified audiences, and when it wasn't encored at its premiere, the composer disparaged the audience with the exclamation "Asses! Cattle!"

However, when a publisher asked him to provide a lighter finale, he agreed, and the jaunty, Haydnesque piece he contributed would be the last composition he completed. In reality, the two finales represent differing solutions to the structural problems Beethoven posed himself, and neither is better or worse than the other; the Ehnes Quartet does well to simply provide both. It is not only the Grosse Fuge that is radical; the opening movement with its seemingly intractable opposition of two blocks of material, is equally so, and the rest of the work ratchets down the tension, either returning to it with the Grosse Fuge or continuing the tension-reduction process with the published finale.

The dynamic is exceptionally well realized here. First violinist James Ehnes brings unusual lyricism to the central movements, taking some time for them to breathe, although the Grosse Fuge has a quick clip. The opening movement is intense without over-the-top violence; one can really hear what Beethoven's audiences heard in it. This recording was made in 2020 at an auditorium at Mercer University in Georgia, with the producer in virtual attendance from London, and given the challenges, it turned out extremely well on all counts. Collapse ↑

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