The Classical Collection

It is interesting that as a recording artist Paik appeared on Naxos before being taken up by one of the "majors": so often nowadays it's the other way around. Naxos is also big in the "historic" field and the 11th volume of its indispensable Beethoven solo piano series featuring the legendary Artur Schnabel (8.110765 ****) allows budget-price access to the great pianist's oddly uneven late 1937 account of the Diabelli Variations. How strange it is when Schnabel unexpectedly takes a breather between Variations 10 and 11, almost as if he's lost interest, though he's back on probing form later on. The same CD also includes highly charged accounts of the Op 126 Bagatelles and "Rage over a lost penny" from a few months earlier.

Beethoven's string quartets are well served by the young Czech Wihan Quartet. Nine volumes are currently available on the Czech Lotus label (you can access them via www.wihanquartet.com). I'd especially recommend the Wihan Quartet's coupling of Op 74, The Harp, and Op 95 Serioso, (Lotus LT 0064-2 131 ****), fiery almost to a fault - try Op 95's impetuous opening allegro or The Harp's scherzo - but with plenty of light and shade. In addition to the standard cycle, the Wihans are also programming rarely heard single movements and the original version of the Quartet Op 18/1. It looks as if the Endellion Quartet (Warners 2564 62161-2 ****) will be doing likewise, the first CD in their cycle adding a tiny B minor fragment to the Quartets, Op 18/2, 95 and 135. The Endellions are marginally more polished than the Wihans, their account of the affable G major Quartet (Op 18/2) poised and tapered, though the opening of the relatively austere Serioso would have benefited from Wihan-style vim. The texts used are based on the latest Beethoven research, which invariably means tiny shifts in emphases or dynamics. Both groups deliver handsomely, though the charismatic Hagen Quartet (DG 477 5705 *****) strike a more individual chord than either. Their latest release couples two of the great "late" masterpieces, the E flat (Op 127), crowned by a sublime set of variations, and the A minor (Op 132) where Beethoven offers a prayer of thanksgiving after illness had laid him low. The quarter-hour slow movement clinches the five-stars, especially at the point where, having set the mood with bare, sombre chords, Beethoven lifts both himself and us with what sounds like celestial birdsong. It is a stroke of genius and so difficult to bring off, and yet by lightening their tone and keeping to a steady pace the Hagens achieve it - and more.

r.cowan@independent.co.uk

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