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Beethoven, Barber, Crumb & Reich String Quartets

Beethoven Op 18 - Bridge 9342 - Budapest String Quartet

Reich, Crumb & Barber - naive V 5272 - Quatuor Diotima

Discs for reviewing arrive in strange combinations and these two of string quartets heard straight one after the other made for a salutary combination.

Generally, I find live recordings the more interesting. Bridge have sent us the Budapest String Quartet's of Beethoven's Op 18 from concerts at the Library of Congress (where they held a residency 1940-62, with use of their Strads) & they made there more than a hundred surving Beethoven quartet recordings.

Their performances were iconic and initiated the Beethoven cycle as a 'rite of passage' for all serious string quartets since then. The notes by Bridge's David Starobin are comprehensive, indeed encyclopaedic, detailing ups and down during the period.

I found it took about 30 seconds to become entirely comfortable with the sound of these transfers from 78s and to realise how little has changed in performance standards since then.

Quatuor Diotima (prizewinners in the London competition 2000, which we attended) offer Reich with tape and Crumb for "electric quartet" in state of the art recordings which are truly stunning. Reich's different trains deals with those to the concentration camps, and Crumb's Black Angels (1970) exploits "electric amplification and echo chamber", here in all its dazzling magnificence.

I have heard and admired Black Angels for most of its 40 years; most memorably in Bilbao, where Crumb used actual "electric instruments" and nearly burnt down its venerable library in a nocturnal rehearsal...

The Diotimas sound to be playing their normal instruments, with "fine quality contact microphones attached with rubber bands to the bellies of the instruments" and I'd guess this 2011 recording must be the best of all?

Barber's quartet, " - - comprehensible for as many as possible, instead of only to be heard by small, snobbish musical societies - - ", is an uncomfortable companion, notable for a rare opportunity to hear the Adagio, made famous by Toscannini, in its original form.

Both these releases are welcomed unreservedly and enthusiastically.

Peter Grahame Woolf