The Lindsays – Beethoven 3 & 4

Friday 1 July 2005

String Quartet in D, Op.18/3
String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso)
String Quartet in B flat, Op.130 [with alternative finale]

Saturday 2 July 2005

String Quartet in C minor, Op.18/4
String Quartet in E flat, Op.74 (Harp)
String Quartet in B flat, Op.130 [with original finale, Grosse Fuge]

The Lindsays [Peter Cropper & Ronald Birks (violin), Robin Ireland (viola) & Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 2 July, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Wigmore Hall is fortunate that the majority of its audiences comprise seasoned concert-goers that are aware of what is an acceptable standard of behaviour. Nevertheless during the second of these recitals two things happened which reflect on problems that all concert halls need to address. Inevitably one is the mobile phone. During a quiet moment in the Grosse Fuge one went off. It is now not unusual for this to happen in concerts generally. As is beginning to happen in the USA, the London halls need to install signal-blockers. Secondly there is the boorish behaviour of some members of any audience. While, again, the Wigmore is usually free of such miscreants, in this same concert it was the couple whose mobile went off that spent the entire evening constantly shuffling and fiddling with programmes, spectacles, indeed anything that came to hand.

Dealing with these individuals is rather more difficult. One solution is a points system that eventually leads to them being barred. Or – far more appealing – hall ushers could be issued with electric cattle prods. Commuters voted for these to be used during the rush-hour for recalcitrant travellers. All concert halls should consider these stimulating devices!

Fortunately the music-making during both these recitals was on a more exalted level. I have no doubt that the soon-to-retire Lindsays is the greatest Beethoven quartet since the Busch. The Lindsays’ Beethoven, and all the composers it plays, is characterised by risk-taking in terms of tempo, a very wide dynamic range, controlled use of vibrato and a refusal to sacrifice emotional intensity for beauty of sound. On a more negative note, ensemble and Peter Cropper’s intonation are sometimes less than perfect. In both of the Opus 18 Quartets the first movements had tremendous drive and intensity and that to No.4, a weak movement, benefited from some savage attack. The Andante of the D major flowed serenely with expression highlighted by the use of dynamic and tonal shading, although the outer movements lacked lightness and rhythmic bounce.

The Lindsays produce a very rich and powerful sound – hardly surprising given the quality of the instruments the players use – but occasionally in the earlier quartets this can be a disadvantage. Collective tuning was a big problem at the start of Opus18/3 and throughout both concerts Peter Cropper’s intonation was problematic, as was some of his bowing.

Both of the middle-period quartets received well-nigh definitive interpretations; the use of rubato was entirely natural, sforzando and staccato markings were all observed, and accelerandos were all taken in a convincing hell-for-leather fashion. Every tempo seemed right, as did the use of light and shade and expressive vibrato.

Thankfully today the B flat Quartet has its original finale sometimes returned to it, the Grosse Fuge (published as Opus 133). The Lindsays played the Quartet twice, first with the second, lighter finale, and then with the Fugue. In the first of the performances, with the second finale, The Lindsays’ tempos were slower and the tone darker, of which the latter may have been down to atmospheric conditions; the first night was hotter and more humid which can affect instruments and acoustics.

What didn’t change was the sense of flow and conversation in the first movement where every tempo change was effortlessly integrated. And in the second subject Peter Cropper used very pronounced slides, which sounded in their context highly anarchic. The short and mercurial Presto was very fast with feather-light rhythms and at the start of the Andante you could have been forgiven for thinking that a huge late-period adagio was about to be launched; the joke was beautifully realised before an acceleration. In the ‘Alla danza tedesca’ the key changes and shifting harmonies were profoundly disturbing when realised with such insouciance.

In the ‘Cavatina’ the tempo on the first night was very slow, which is exactly how it should be. On the second it was slightly faster, but the sense of time standing still remained. With regard to the alternative finale, it is a great piece of music, but it fails to balance the first movement or to match the gravitas of the ‘Cavatina’. The original ending, Grosse Fuge, was played at speed with staggeringly ferocious attack; there was simply no attempt to produce pleasing sounds: the composer would surely have approved.

Both these concerts were object lessons in the art of Beethoven interpretation. The world will be a sadder place when The Lindsays hang up their bows.

  • Remaining Beethoven recitals – 15 & 16 July
  • The Lindsays and Friends – 23 July @ 4 p.m. and 7.30
  • Wigmore Hall

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