WITH the news I have for you this week, I’m inclined to call for a flourish of trumpets. Well, we don’t have any trumpets in this department, so how about something more intimate with a quartet of stringed instruments? The good news is that the superlative Quartetto di Cremona have a new CD out next week: Friday 22, to be precise, it should be in the shops. The very good news is that it features a continuation in their recording of a complete cycle of Beethoven’s String Quartets on the Audite label, arriving at Volume Six in the new release. But the great news, on top of everything else, is that the group, one of the supreme string quartets of the era, is returning to Britain for an autumn tour, which will feature a number of appearances in Scotland. Full details on that once all seasons are launched, but the enterprising Milngavie Music Club, fast approaching its own 75th anniversary season, has its Cremona concert fully packaged and out there on sale. They have the quartet playing Puccini’s beautiful Crisantemi, Mozart’s K589 B flat Quartet and the second of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets in Milngavie’s Cairns Church on Friday October 14 at 7.30pm.
It’s years now since all of us in the music business who are privileged to scribble about the music we hear clocked the Quartetto di Cremona as something special. It was clear, from the very first release in this new Beethoven series, that here was a quartet voice that had something to say and a way of saying it distinctively. I’m not remotely embarrassed to admit that, from the first moment I heard them play I heard resonances in their big sound, forward projection, confident and strong attacking style of the long-gone Quartetto Italiano, one of the greatest string quartets of all time.
But I’ve got that out of my system now, because the Cremona Quartet are their own men, with their own sound, their own approach and their own style. And, in a world that is positively crawling with string quartets (where do they all come from, and how do they breed?) the Quartetto di Cremona, to my mind and perception, are just about the top of the heap. I’ve thought for some time that, as a group, they have rocketed into the firmament. They have a playing style that is instantly recognisable, confirmed yet again in every second’s performance on their new album. But they also have remarkable powers of perception and understanding of the biggest musical shapes and the tiniest details that come together with near-incredible coherence and intelligence in these latest Beethoven performances. And the sense of character they find in the music has, on more than one occasion, sent me scuttling away to dig out an earlier reference set to pinpoint and try to identify what it is the Cremona players are doing that is uniquely their own. Whatever it is, you will hear it all over and right through their new release, which features performances of two quartets: the fifth quartet in the opus 18 set, in A major, and the colossal opus 130 quartet in B flat major, here played with its alternative finale.
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Now this is not a CD review space, and I’ll get the new disc reviewed as soon as possible (it’s absolutely phenomenal). What is more appropriate here however is to clarify exactly what happened in 1826 that resulted in there being a so-called “alternative” finale written for the opus 130 B flat Quartet. There’s a huge story in there, with many ramifications, but here’s a brief pointer for today. The quartet has Beethoven working at the boundaries of orthodox structure. It was a huge piece anyway, having six movements instead of the usual four. But to make matters infinitely more complicated, Beethoven produced, for his final movement, a colossal work of mind-bending complexity. This was the Great Fugue, almost beyond playability and, for some, beyond comprehension. Beethoven was begged by his publisher to produce an alternative finale, more within the reach of human fingers and human comprehension. Perhaps amazingly, the publisher did not get gubbed by Beethoven, a man of some volatility. The composer instead complied, wrote an alternative finale, detached the Great Fugue from the quartet, gave it a separate opus number (opus 133) and set it off on a life of its own. And it is that optional finale, a 10-minute, stonkingly-buoyant masterpiece, which the Cremona Quartet play on their new recording. I won’t completely spoil the astonishing effectiveness of this performance, which had me grinning from ear to ear. I’ll just say that the group shaves the edge off the conventional tempo. Just wait until you hear the results.