Inspiration with perspiration

Beethoven cycle Lindsay Quartet Wigmore Hall, London; 'The mental and muscular strength and expressive range were arresting'
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A Lindsay Quartet Beethoven cycle is, on the face of it, nothing new. The Lindsays have been doing them magnificently for most of their 20-year-plus history; the recordings are more than 10 years old. It wouldn't be too surprising if, by now, some aspects of their interpretations had settled down into a cosy, unquestioning routine. But this hasn't happened. The performance they gave of the A minor Quartet, Op 132, in the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, felt as fresh as any I can remember, even though there were no obvious innovations - no radical re-thinks on tempo, phrasing or tone-colour.

Op 132 presents an enormous interpretative challenge. Contrasts of mood and musical character are extreme, sometimes disorienting: a rapt, contemplative modal hymn twice gives way to very earthy dancing; a jolly little march is suddenly pushed aside by a weirdly melodramatic violin recitative. Orthodoxy has it that in Beethoven, especially "late" Beethoven, there is a sublime logic behind everything, binding these apparently disparate ideas to one another with intellectual hoops of steel. Intricate connections can be found, but the element of shock is surely essential. The Lindsays seem to think so. As they played it, the sudden mood-swing at the end of the Finale was the most alarming of all - a wild, almost hysterically protesting dance tune suddenly relaxed, smiled ingratiatingly and then performed a neat little bow. "All contradictions," said the programme- note, "at last seem to be resolved." Really?

This Lindsay Beethoven cycle began with an intriguing extra item: Beethoven's arrangement for quartet of his E major Piano Sonata, Op 14 No 1 - for practical reasons, the adaptation is transposed to F. It works extraordinarily well, especially the ambiguous central movement - less capricious, more troubled than usual in this performance. Putting this fine but relatively undemanding piece first meant that the Lindsays were fully warmed up by the time they began Op 18 No 1 - officially Beethoven's "First" Quartet, but what a way to begin a cycle! The Lindsays may not be the world's most polished string quartet, but the mental and muscular strength, expressive range and penetration they brought were just as arresting here as in Op 132 - how many modern quartets could match that? Beethoven told a friend that the slow movement was inspired by the tomb scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and it's hard to recall a more urgently dramatic performance than this - one could have been listening to a tone-poem, or even an operatic scena. Small wonder that the players' silk shirts dripped with perspiration at the end.

n Cycle continues: 5, 6, 10, 12, 13 Jan. Booking: 0171-935 2141

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