Arts: Classical: Beethoven's beginning, middle and his end

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BEETHOVEN'S COMPOSING career is always described in terms of early, middle and late: convenient but, of course, a bit misleading. His string quartets, however, do fit quite nicely into that pattern, with the first six composed as a set, Op 18, then the three "Rasumovsky" quartets, the "Harp" and Op 95 in the middle, and the five late quartets and "Grosse Fuge" forming, on their own, a cycle of works that are related - Beethoven even moved some movements from one to another.

In their series of concerts, the Takacs Quartet have arranged each programme to represent all three periods - which is attractive to audiences, whether they want to choose one or two concerts or subscribe to the whole cycle.

In their first concert the Takacs began with the G major Quartet, Op 18 No 2 - a graceful, charming work, and for that reason a good opener. As well as a scherzo, it has a slow movement with a fast middle section, almost like an additional scherzo. This was the one point in the evening when the players' grasp of rhythm seemed less than spot-on.

The "Harp", Op 74, is a charming work, too, though not only that, and the Takacs played its unusual pizzicato passages (hence the nickname) with admirable clarity and strength. They also drove its scherzo and still faster trio section powerfully.

The late work was the B flat Quartet, Op 130, for which Beethoven originally wrote the "Grosse Fuge" as finale. Here we heard the much lighter but still deeply satisfying finale he wrote as a replacement, which the Takacs began without any break after the famous Cavatina - a delightful surprise. The six movements positively brim with invention, but it's the simpler things that stick, such as the apparently artless "Alla danza tedesca" - taken gently here - and the shadowy, two-in-a-bar scherzo, where the clownish antics in the middle were brilliantly thrown off.

The second concert began with the likeable and compact C minor Quartet, Op 18 No 4 - the key alone, one of Beethoven's favourites, guarantees a bit of bite, if not, in this case, tragic drama. Some of the bite was reduced, though, by the first violin's tendency to a rather loose vibrato. With the first (and to me, the plainest) of the Rasumovsky Quartets, we entered a much broader time-scale; the slow third movement is one of Beethoven's elaborate and tragic pieces, not quite ideally inward here.

The Takacs seem more comfortable with optimistic moods. And in the great A minor Quartet, Op 132, it was their reduction of dynamic contrasts - playing up the quietest passages - and taking the second and fourth movements rather too easily, that lessened the impact of the whole. The first violin went way over the top in his rhetorical flourish introducing the finale, and yet the finale itself was hardly as passionate as that moment of abandon promised. But then, even a quartet as accomplished as the Takacs can't be inspired every night.

Adrian Jack

The next two concerts in the Takacs Quartet's Beethoven series will be on 12 & 15 Feb. Box office: 0171-935 2141