A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.
This RCA White Dog pressing contains what many consider to be Beethoven’s greatest string quartet, with SUPERB better than Super Hot Stamper sound on BOTH sides, each of which rated grades of A++ to A+++. The reason we held back on the full Three Plus White Hot Stamper designation is simple: each side had slightly more of a fairly important quality that the other side lacked. When you play this record at home see if you don’t agree with us that this is an AMAZING sounding chamber music record, with minor, albeit recognizable and appreciable, differences in its strengths on each side.
We’ve always found it odd that reviewers of audiophile records (and records in general for that matter) never seem to notice these sonic differences from side to side. The differences seem quite obvious to us, as I’m sure they do to you, dear reader, or you wouldn’t be on this site. After all, most of the records we offer have different grades for their two (or four or six) sides, different sonic grades as well as different surface grades. From our point of view nothing could be more obvious.
Our last copy of this record went on the site three years ago, with much lower grades. These early RCA pressings are getting hard to find, and ones that sound like this, with reasonably quiet vinyl, are especially hard to find
Okay, let’s get back to Beethoven and his 14th String Quartet. According to Wikipedia: It is said that upon listening to a performance of this quartet, Schubert remarked,
“After this, what is left for us to write?”.
Along with Op. 127, Robert Schumann held them in the highest esteem, ascribing to them,
“…the grandeur of which no words can express. They seem to me to stand…on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”
A++ to A+++, with sound that is as relaxed and as natural as the best analog we’ve heard. Full, rarely shrill, with an especially sweet top end, the only area in which we felt there was room for improvement was in the area of transparency. Side two had more of it, therefore side one was docked half a plus — nearly perfect, but not quite.
A++ to A+++, now with more transparency, but at the expense of some of the fullness and solidity that made side one so remarkable. We see them as opposite sides of the same coin. Depending on your system you may prefer one to the other; to us both are wonderful, each in its own way.
We normally do not put the effort and resources (read: paying big bucks for fifty year old used records of unknown provenance) into finding top quality pressings of chamber music that we do for the large orchestral works favored by audiophiles, works such as Scheherazade and The Planets. However, if more of them sounded as good as this one, and played as quietly, we would be more than happy to do just that. We will surely be doing more of these kinds of records in the future. They provide a special, more intimate, audiophile listening experience.
Easrsense Chamberbase Commentary and Background
When the Russian Prince Galitzin approached Beethoven with a commission for “one, two or three” quartets, he helped catalyze one of the most wondrous creations in all of chamber music: the ineffable “late” quartets of Beethoven. After finishing the three commissioned quartets, Beethoven kept on composing adding a forth and fifth quartet and a final revised movement comprising a singular corpus of sustained musical thought and feeling of tremendous scope and arguable unity. All for the string quartet. Spanning a working focus of two years time, these are Beethoven’s final compositions, testament to his enduring devotion to the string quartet, witness to his mastery, transcendence and everlasting dominance of this august genre.
Beethoven took the classical string quartet from Haydn and Mozart and, over the course of his life, radically expanded the art form in every conceivable way. He not only made his quartets longer, more complicated and more difficult to play, more impossible, he also made them more intellectually and emotional intense. More majestic, tragic, funny, simple, brilliant, imponderable and miraculous. Simply, more profound, more alive, more vividly real. The fourth of the late quartets in the order he composed them, Op. 131 is, by ample testimony, the greatest of them all. It was Beethoven’s favorite. Schubert’s final musical request was to hear Beethoven’s Op. 131. Wagner wrote a florid, poetic tome about the epic greatness of Op. 131. There is no ultimate objective judgment, but these are fine, suggestive pointers. It is not ingenuous to say that this just might be la crème de la crème.
With seven movements and typically, the longest duration of any of his quartets, Op. 131 would seem to be Beethoven’s most expansive utterance. All seven movements are played without pause creating a single giant continuous structure embracing an initial somber but lyrical fugue, two vibrant scherzi, a colossal theme and variations, connective recitative, a wisp of heartbreaking adagio and a dazzling finale cresting in mountainous developments alongside the most delicate, visceral, effervescent and tensile textures imaginable. For both the first and the last movements, is it revealing to consider that Beethoven had composed the monolithic Op. 133 Grosse Fuge immediately prior. The central theme and variations by itself is among Beethoven’s greatest creations. And it is not the technical details that most amaze. It is how the music makes one feel.
Attempting to write about Op. 131 reaches a glorious impasse: 1 word is too many, 10,000 are not enough. There is and will always be the music. Thanks to Prince Galitzin, and Beethoven.
Overall Sonic Grade:
Side One – A++ to A+++
Side Two – A++ to A+++
1) Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus with the last inch being at the lower end of that grade.
2) Mint Minus Minus to Mint Minus with the last inch being a bit more ticky than the rest.
Cover Grade: 8 out of 10, very nice