Ludwig van Beethoven
"String Quartets, Opp. 131, 135"
Deutsche Grammophon (1979)
1000 Recordings To Hear Hear Before You Die
It's not as easy as you would think for Tom Moon to make classical music selections for 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. For example, right now we're in the middle of a Beethoven block. As "the greatest composer who ever lived," Beethoven has plenty of obvious choices for such a list. The tough job for Moon isn't to choose what Beethoven compositions to choose, but rather to choose between the hundreds of recordings that have been made for each of the composer's works. His choice for Beethoven's String Quartets, Opuses 131 and 135, is particularly interesting. Namely, because he didn't opt for a string quartet. He opted for the Vienna Philharmonic.
As Moon discussed in a follow-up post on his website, many took issue with his selection of a full symphony orchestra playing pieces drawn up for an intimate four-piece group. Try to imagine, if you will, the six string quartets from Bartok that we listened to, being played by a full orchestra instead. It doesn't work. Of course, this comparison is somewhat unfair due to Bartok's "night music" style, but it still allows you to observe the difference a few dozen extra musicians will make.
Of course, Moon opts for the conductor/composer who is probably best suited for taking a bigger-is-better approach. Leonard Bernstein was the biggest name in American classical music since George Gershwin, known for both his compositions (such as "West Side Story") and conducting with the New York Philharmonic. Of course, with his renown sometimes came negative feedback, including many critics complaining that his emotional approach to conducting led to unusual shifts in tempo. At any rate, unless you've heard these quartets in their original format, you won't be too bothered by his version.
Op. 131 is considered the highlight of Beethoven's string quartets, and it's no wondering why. Beethoven described the writing process as "a new manner of part-writing and, thank God, less lack of imagination than before." This "imagination" he refers to probably refers to the interesting setup of the seven-part arrangement. The movement opens with an adagio that Richard Wagner described as "the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music." Immediately following that comes an allegro in sonata form, making for a lively dance, creating a dramatic shift in pace. The piece continues to swing uncomfortably between moods until its conclusion. Op. 135 is a tad more standard in its alignment, maintaining an upbeat tone all the way through.
Despite there being multiple times more violins and cellos than standard string quartet format, non-string instruments don't shake things up too much. The biggest difference (which is only noticeable if you really listen for it) is the rumble of the timpani in the background of Op. 131. If you still feel ripped off that you didn't get the experience Beethoven intended, however, I would recommend the version performed by the Budapest String Quartet released this year (2012).
INTERESTING FACT: Bernstein might be best known for his work with musicals, but he also counts the score to "On The Waterfront" among his film compositions.