String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.49
String Quartet in F, Op.59/2 (Razumovsky)

Michelangelo String Quartet [Mihaela Martin & Stephen Picard (violins), Nobuko Imai (viola), Frans Helmerson (cello)]
Michelangelo String Quartet. Photograph: The Michelangelo Quartet are in the process of recording a cycle of Beethoven's string quartets, and it was clear from this performance (part of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert series) that they have been living the music for some time.
The first of Beethoven's three quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky was completed just six years after the Op.18 set, but the stylistic advances are considerable. In this performance the long phrases of the first movement were articulated beautifully, firstly by Frans Helmerson and, in response, by Mihaela Martin. A very slight but tasteful rubato was also in evidence, and Beethoven's intricate counterpoint clear and easy to follow.
The emotional centre was undoubtedly the Adagio – defying some unfortunate seasonal coughs and mobile phone rings. The Quartet observed Beethoven's marking of mesto to the letter, the relentless minor key writing only briefly giving way.
Around this was the slight impudence of the scherzo, its repeated notes flitting between the four instruments, and the finale, eventually banished the subdued slow movement with its more rustic, Russian theme.
This theme put the the first of Shostakovich's quartets in an apt context. It was written at a relatively advanced stage in his career, when the composer had already completed five symphonies. The Michelangelo Quartet successfully conveyed the fragility of this work, which despite its emphatic finale does not quite dispel the doubts accumulating in the middle movements.
These were made plain in Stephen Picard's edgy theme for the scherzo, while the Moderato featured a graceful solo from Nobuko Imai, the music looking warily over its shoulder when Martin's restless counter melody was introduced. Although Shostakovich provides essentially upward-looking music to begin and end the quartet, the Michelangelo brought forward the uncertainties that would eventually take over in the composer's later works in the form.
Providing a further link between Beethoven and Shostakovich was the well-judged encore, the second movement of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet in F, Op.22 – once again, beautifully played.


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