WENHAM - An all-Beethoven program may not sound adventurous for a string quartet concert. In most cases, it isn’t.
But the Leipzig String Quartet managed to introduce a little variety into this timeworn plan by throwing open the makeup of its Friday concert at Gordon College to the audience. On a page on the Gordon website, audience members were asked to choose a favorite quartet from the composer’s early, middle, and late works. The Leipzig played the top vote-getter in each category. The lineup was determined on the day of the concert.
This was not exactly throwing caution to the winds, since most Beethoven quartet programs end up looking like this. Still, in a business where concert agendas are sometimes fixed years in advance, any injection of spontaneity is welcome.
If you had not known that the Leipzig was a world-class quartet, you knew from the start of Beethoven’s first quartet (Op. 18, No. 1). The foursome generates a warm, refined sound, impeccably balanced among the instruments. For all the sonic splendor the ensemble interplay is easy and transparent.
All of which served them well in the Op. 18 work, which they took at rather deliberate tempos. Every phrase seemed to breathe, especially in the hands of first violinist Stefan Arzberger and cellist Matthias Moosdorf. If there was a fault, it was that one occasionally wished for more contrast and tension in the performance.
That was a bigger issue in the “Serioso’’ quartet (Op. 95). This is one of Beethoven’s most compact and dramatic quartets, but a good deal of the drama was lost in the Leipzig’s opulent sound and unhurried approach. They did, however, make the slow movement sound remarkably forward-looking.
The people’s choice for late Beethoven was the monumental A-minor quartet (Op. 132). The outer four movements were superbly played and paced. But the rapturous central slow movement - the “holy song of thanksgiving,’’ as the composer called it - came up just short of perfection, played a little too fast to give it the sense of awe the music needs to make its deepest impression. That said, it was ecstatically beautiful, and achieving that is no small feat in music of almost transcendent difficulty.
There was a well-deserved sense of triumph at the end. Understandably, the Leipzig chose its own encore: the scherzo from Opus 130 of the Beethoven quartets. The people approved.