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Stephen D Chakwin Jr
American Record Guide, January 2011

The major item here is the Op. 29 Quintet, a lovely piece in C major that takes the language of the early quartets and moves it forward a bit. Beethoven was experimenting with the ensemble that Mozart used for his quintets; and, though he didn’t stick with it—unfortunately— he created some ravishing sounds. Beethoven learned from Haydn, and perhaps from Mozart, how much could be done with inner voices and played with them here—listen to the saturated sound of the opening of the first movement or to the voice-leading in the Adagio—but wound up staying with the traditional quartet and achieving some decent results there, if memory serves.

I’ve encountered two outstanding recordings of this piece. One was by the Tokyo Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman, included in their RCA set of the Op. 18 quartets. The other was by the Vienna Octet in a Decca LP backed by an also distinguished recording of the Sextet for two horns and strings. I have not seen the latter on CD and think that even the LP never made it to this country except as an import. The Tokyo performance was powerful and lyrical. The Viennese was lighter and sweeter but perfectly poised.

This new one is heavy-handed by comparison. It opens with a statement of the beginning of the first movement that is saturated with the inner voices and goes on from there in the same vein. If you like this kind of thing, it is very rich and lyrical. If you don’t, it’s a little over-ripe and takes away from the flow and shape of the music. Things do not pick up from there.

The Op. 104 Quintet is a transcription of the early String Trio in C minor, a work full of energy but not any more powerful as a quintet than it was as a trio. The fugue is about two minutes of minor (no pun) activity.

With the Tokyo immured in a boxed set and the Vienna performance as elusive as the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, this new release has a legitimate claim for attention. And, in all fairness, the current incarnation of the Fine Arts Quartet plays well, though without the finesse of its rivals or of its former self.

Naxos’s price makes this release attractive if you want to get to know a neglected Beethoven masterpiece and two smaller works. On the other hand, if you have the Tokyo or Vienna, this one has nothing to add to your experience of the work.

The sound is very good in a matter-of-fact way.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, November 2010

Despite a spate of recordings in the past few years, the superb op. 29 string quintet—written between Beethoven’s early and middle quartets—isn’t nearly as well known as the high quality of the music deserves. The highest marks go to the Endellion Quartet’s performance, which alas is only available in a 10-CD set with the complete quartets, yet the performances of the Nash Ensemble (Hyperion 67693), Kuijken Ensemble (Challenge 72181), and Zurich String Quintet (Brilliant Classics 92857) all have something good to offer.

My overall impression of this new Naxos recording by the Fine Arts Quartet with guest second violist Gil Sharon was basically very, very good. They don’t play with perfect ensemble polish, a trait we’ve come to take for granted since the Budapest and Yale String Quartets raised the bar for string ensembles in the 1940s and 50s, but sometimes a less homogenous ensemble sound allows you to hear the various strands of the music more as individual voices and less as five finely tuned instruments blending like a chamber orchestra. In this case, the advantage is all Beethoven’s, as it is clear from the first phrase that he wrote for this quintet specifically in order to say something with five voices that a quartet could not.

The rather odd op. 104 quintet is, in fact, a transcription of his early Piano Trio in C Minor, op. 1/3, from 1795. The original transcription was actually made by one of Beethoven’s fans, a certain Herr Kauffmann, which Beethoven found lacking, but he noticed enough imaginative details to make a transcription of his own and publish it as op. 104. The short, odd op. 137 fugue, which lasts less than two minutes and breaks off quite suddenly, was intended to shame his publisher into making fewer printing errors. As such, it’s interesting but not particularly meaty.

The bottom line is this. If you already own the Endellion Quartet’s 10-CD set (Warner Classics 517450), you don’t need to add this disc to your collection, but if you’re like me and own different performances of the 16 quartets (I happen to like Emerson in the early works, Tokyo for the middle, and the incendiary Colorado Quartet for the late pieces), grab this disc for your collection. Beethoven obviously liked something in the op. 104 arrangement that he felt superceded the op. 1 original, and op. 29 is a truly great work when played with the kind of spirit, subtlety, and vigor that Fine Arts and Sharon give it here. The sound quality is splendidly vivid and not overly reverberant.

James Manheim, October 2010

The advertised presence of two Beethoven string quintets on the cover of this Naxos-label release may be confusing for listeners only vaguely aware that he wrote even one. In fact the proffered String Quintet in C minor, Op. 104, is an arrangement of the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1/3, of 1795, begun by someone else and revised by Beethoven during a low point in his life and financial affairs. The centerpiece of the program is the String Quintet in C major, Op. 29, finished in 1802, which is, if not a real rarity, certainly one of the least often performed among the major pieces of Beethoven’s maturity. As performed here by the Milwaukee-based Fine Arts Quartet, with second violist Gil Sharon, it divulges absolutely no reason for its comparative obscurity vis-à vis the six early string quartets. In fact, maybe the ensemble deserves credit for finding the key to putting the quintet across. The players cultivate a heavy legato sound that’s somewhat counter to fashion for Beethoven’s chamber music but works like a charm here. The quintet is one of the early Beethoven works that directly inspired the next generation, which never followed him into the profound structural integration of the middle period. The Fine Arts players get the exact shade of the second subject of the first movement in the very Schubertian key of A major, an unusual enough move for 1802. And the big dimensions of the other movements and their sharply contrasting characters never escape their control. A bonus is the inclusion of the little Fugue in D major, Op. 137, which the booklet notes by Anthony Short (in English only) suggest was a kind of proofreader’s bonus. In fact this fugue, also composed in 1817, seems to have been something more: an early sketch or adumbration of the fusion of dense polyphony and a folk-like mood that repeatedly shows up in Beethoven’s late work. Once again the quartet’s performance is fresh, confident, and committed. The sound, recorded in a Dutch monastery library, is excellent, and at a budget price it’s hard to hear this as anything other than the recording of choice for Beethoven’s sole string quintet.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, October 2010

The Fine Arts Quartet have already given us some fine Naxos recordings of Quintets, in company with a second viola player, Danilo Rossi in Mendelssohn (8.570488), Gil Sharon in Bruckner (8.570788), or with Cristina Ortiz, piano, in Fauré (8.570938) and Franck (8.572009). Ian Lace made their recording of the Fauré one of his Recordings of the Year in 2009—see review. Oleg Ledeniov—here—and Kevin Sutton—here—also praised the Fauré recording. I thought their version of the Franck well worth having...and an earlier Naxos version of these works—see review. The Bruckner and Mendelssohn recordings have also been highly praised elsewhere.

Their new CD, again with Gil Sharon, complements the earlier Naxos recording of the Metamorphosis Quintet in the ‘other’ String Quintets, Op.1/2, Op.11 and Op.17, all transcribed by Beethoven’s near-contemporary Carl Khym or Chym (8.553827)...In Op.29, the only work which Beethoven originally composed for string quintet...there is more than enough to enjoy in the new Naxos version for it to stand and be recommended on its own merits...Op.104, despite its high opus number, is an arrangement of the Piano Trio No.3, the work with which Beethoven first surprised and shocked the Viennese public, though it now sounds harmless enough by comparison with the Late Quartets, which still have the power to take the unwary listener by the throat. Op.1/3 also marked the parting of the ways between Beethoven and Haydn, who had advised him that he was not yet ready to publish—advice which Beethoven attributed to jealousy, thereafter proclaiming that he had learned much more from Salieri than Haydn...I’m not sure that the quintet arrangement adds anything to the original version, but the Naxos performance is good enough to do the music justice...The Fugue, Op.137, is little more than a curiosity—gone almost before you realise that it’s there—but it rounds off the CD well...If you just want Op.29 and Op.104, you should not be disappointed by the new CD—stylish performances, well recorded, of attractive less-well-known Beethoven on an inexpensive but well-filled CD.

Duncan Druce
Gramophone, October 2010

The highly experienced Fine Arts Quartet (and their guest) represent a style of string playing that places great stress on beautiful, rich tone. Beethoven’s challenging, wonderfully imaginative writing for quintet in both the main works here (the Op 104 Quintet is his 1817 correction of an arrangement of the Op 1 No 3 Piano Trio) is realised in a way that always sounds rounded and well balanced. The genial Scherzo of Op 29 demonstrates the group’s excellent rhythmic control, and...the poise of Ralph Evans’s semiquaver passages and the fine tremolando sound contribute to a vital account...Op 104’s finale opens with splendidly vigorous gestures...Op 29’s Adagio sounds seductively generous...

Duncan Druce
Gramophone, October 2010

The Fine Arts Quartet play beautifully…these performances present a beguiling portrait.

Terry Barfoot
MusicWeb International, September 2010

The Op. 29 String Quintet finds Beethoven at the top of his form, with music at once bold and imaginative…The Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon [perform it] with confidence and aplomb. The sensitivity of the recorded sound also plays its part, since the resonance of the ensemble sonorities is matched by the details of the part writing. In other words the listener is granted the best of both worlds. There are some other good performances of the Quintet, for example by the Tokyo Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman (RCA) and the Quatuor Ysaÿe with Shuli Waterman (BIS), but with the added benefit of the advantageous Naxos price this new issue makes a compelling case for itself…The Op. 104 Quintet…makes for intriguing listening…Once again the Fine Arts ensemble performs with distinction, as they do also in the little Fugue in D major. © 2010 MusicWeb International

Steve Moffat
Village Voice – Balmain, August 2010

BEETHOVEN only wrote one string quintet, and that was fairly early in his career, but Naxos have teamed the Op 29 work with the adaptation of his C minor piano trio in a new release featuring the excellent US ensemble Fine Arts Quartet joined by violist Gil Sharon (8572221). Another fine recording by this budget label, this is a must-have for any serious collector of chamber music…The pieces make a lovely pairing. © 2010 Village Voice - Balmain

Erik Levi
BBC Music Magazine, August 2010

The enlarged Fine Arts Quartet delivers a strongly committed performance of this work, supported by a beautifully balanced but clear recording.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

How many times have you heard Beethoven’s String Quintets in the concert hall in recent years? They are in danger of becoming part of his forgotten output, yet he gave us such a happy work in the C major score. In style it is not dissimilar to the Second Symphony also composed in 1802, and despite the knowledge that deafness awaited him, it opens in a cheerful mood, the long flowing Adagio that follows among his most graceful creations. The scherzo is relaxed before dramatic energy is unleashed in the final Presto. By contrast 1817 was proving to be a highly unproductive year, and having received a well-meaning transcription for String Quintet of his early Piano Trio, he set to work on his own version and was happy enough with the result to allow its publication. The late opus number is therefore somewhat misleading as the music dates back to 1795. Its pleasing nature makes a likeable companion to the C major, the length and shape of movements making the two scores remarkably similar. Filling the disc is a very short Fugue of passing interest. The 2008 recording comes from the period when Chauncey Patterson was the Fine Arts Quartet’s viola, the additional viola being in the safe hands of the much experienced Gil Sharon. If some very ‘naughty’ moments in the second quintet are a little uneasy, it is throughout a most pleasurable release.

Balaam’s Music, May 2010

Beethoven String Quintets—surprisingly obscure—are unearthed by the Fine Arts Quartet, joined by Gil Sharon on Viola. The first, Opus 29 in C major comes between the well known opus 18 quartets and the Rasumovsky quartets. The second, Opus 104, is an arrangement of his early Piano Trio in C minor, and the Fugue in D major is a musical curiosity, written as an inducement to his publisher to make fewer printing errors.

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