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Four stars is half a star too few but despite my love for and admiration of this lovely quartet I want to signal in a small way one or two minor reservations regarding this splendid bargain set.
First, however, let me say that no-one could argue with the artistic integrity, the sweet intonation, or the ability of the Tokyo Quartet to combine seamlessly in this Everest of chamber music. Nor is there any argument about the production values and sound engineering of these recordings, all made for RCA Red Seal between December 1989 and July 1992. Anyone wanting a "starter" - or indeed, a supplementary - set at a bargain price is indeed getting a bargain without any of the attendant bargain-basement drawbacks: this is refined, responsive playing by one of the most respected quartets ever in all its 24 bit digital glory.
However, it is that very elegance which, without ever being bland, occasionally makes me wish for a rawer edge and a little more passion and attack of the kind I hear from the Medici Quartet in their Nimbus bargain set - one which I have always enjoyed but which has attracted what is, in my estimation, wholly unjustified opprobium from some quarters for their supposed "ugliness" of sound. While the sublime Cavatina of Op. 130 might require paying of the most exquisite delicacy, there are also many passages and movements, especially in the later quartets, which demand a more elemental and robust treatment to reflect the strife inherent in the music. I want to hear more thwack and thrum of bow on gut. My other cavil is the extent to which I can hear the sniff of the lead violinist on the upbeat before each bar, which can be become quite a distraction as one aurally anticipates yet another intrusive nasal prelude to each long phrase. I hope that's not too trivial or petty a complaint but it does bother me, especially in the extended Adagio of the "Heiliger Dankgesang" in Op.132.
Otherwise, this is simply lovely playing, irreproachable and unimpeachable in its musicality. Nine well-filled discs for very little outlay in yet another of these Sony collections being rapidly issued in succession to a grateful listening public quick to know a steal when it sees it.
A very fine set of the complete Beethoven quartets. The recordings are excellent despite the varied vintages of them. Only drawback to this set is that there is no booklet enclosed to help the listener more fully appreciate these works. Of course, one can check Wikipedia for notes on these works. This is, I know, a repackaging of various RCA recordings over the years into one homogenous set. And the price is a bargain, for sure. But the lack of program notes cause me to give it four rather than five stars. But don't hesitate to get this collection if you want to have the complete quartets of Beethoven in one convenient package.