Ehnes Quartet: Beethoven

The Strad Issue: January 2022

Description: The latest instalment in what is proving to be an outstanding Beethoven cycle

Musicians: Ehnes Quartet

Works: Beethoven: String Quartets: no. 10 op.74 ‘Harp’, no.11 op.95 ‘Serioso’

Catalogue number: ONYX 4216

Halfway in, what a Beethoven cycle this is shaping up to become. He might not appreciate the comparison, but James Ehnes is the only violinist of our day to emulate Adolf Busch in mastering a recorded overview of Beethoven’s string music. What also links them is a warmth and fullness of tone never compromised by fierce engagement. Ehnes and his colleagues take an unusually confrontational approach to the slow introduction of op.74, setting the scene for a toughly argued main Allegro which goes back to first principles for the supposedly ‘harp-like’ figurations and lends them a spinning velocity shared by the Seventh Symphony.

An earthy richness of vibrato sets this account of the slow movement apart from most modern rivals. When Beethoven has a song to sing, here and in the variation finale, it unfolds without mannered contrasts. The Scherzo’s blood-brotherhood with the Fifth Symphony’s ‘fate’ motive is pointed but not underlined by a tautly maintained pulse. An overall terseness of thought draws op.74 here closer than usual to op.95 and onwards to the elliptical world of the late quartets – always Beethoven’s world, though, rather than forging strenuous links with his Romantic or modernist successors.

The slow introduction to op.95’s finale swells with suppressed pathos, which in turn throws a satisfying formal weight on to the finale as a whole, aligning it with the compressed humour of the Eighth Symphony (op.93). Clean, full-bodied engineering; at 50 minutes, only the most miserly niggler will grumble about short measure.