Comparative disc layouts begin to differ from CD 3, and the Angeles omit The Seven Last Words, a work which, beautiful though it is, was not originally written for string quartet. Recordings-wise, Philips favours a warm, open sound, balanced much as you would hear it from the centre stalls in a smallish-size concert hall. Decca’s analogue recordings are closer, dryer, more sensitive to extraneous noise and commonly balanced in favour of Emanuel Hurwitz’s first violin. I like that quality in principle – it’s a clear and intimate sound frame – and the leader bias actually suits the divertimento-style early quartets, but Philips’s more refined engineering makes for less strenuous listening in extended (ie concert-length) sessions. A handful of edits (audible more through headphones than on speakers) are the only blots on Philips’s otherwise immaculate aural landscape.
Op 50 No 4’s Andante anticipates the dramatic interjections that trouble various late Schubert slow movements. Both groups are effective here, though when the cello marks an expected change of key two minutes or so into the movement, it’s the Aeolian’s Derek Simpson who makes the biggest impact: you can almost see the rosin erupt from his strings. In Op 50 No 5 late Beethoven springs more readily to mind, but there I find the Angeles’ extra speed and restraint more effective. Note how beautifully they negotiate the quiet alternation between upper and lower voices towards the end of Op 50 No 6’s Poco adagio and the sudden blossoming that follows. Then again, Op 54 No 1’s mobile Allegretto second movement harbours the potential to switch from tenseness to lyrical effusiveness, which the Angeles exploit to the full, as they do for the rhapsodising Adagio of Op 54 No 2. Late Beethoven is evoked once more, this time the Cavatina from Op 130.
Whenever I encounter these works en bloc I momentarily wonder if life isn’t too short to bother about any other music. Silly, I know, but the pickings are so incredibly rich. I had originally sorted through my own collection to compare the Lindsays, Amadeus, Vienna Konzerthaus, Quatuor Mosaiques, Pro Arte and Takacs, all of whom have added substantially – and characterfully – to the Haydn quartet discography. All have their value, but in this particular context it really is a head-to-head contest between two ‘complete’ sets similarly presented.