The quartets on this album are among Beethoven’s final utterances on the string quartet, a form of which he became the ultimate master. The distance traversed from his first quartets to these final ones is immense. But even if all of his works are recognizable as inimitably Beethoven’s, these final ones are, well, different. These two final ones (in number, though no. 15 was written before no. 13) - contrast markedly with each other.
Op. 132 traverses a spiritual development from near-despair to a triumphant finale. In the middle is perhaps the greatest of all of Beethoven’s adagios, the "holy song of thanksgiving" - based on a hymn-like figure using medieval harmonies and an "alternativo" that brings us back to life. It is true end-of-the-world music - there’s nothing like it. A cheery march leads to a finale in which all doubts are swept away, culminating in a super-joyful coda - a thrilling conclusion to a mighty story.
Op. 135, written very near the end of his life, is another matter. Two of its four movements seem hardly serious at all - the first quite jocular, the second (scherzo) even more so - take the lengthy passage in which the lower three instruments play the same slightly mad figure over and over (48 times!) while the first violin cavorts insanely above them. But the third is indeed altogether sublime - sweet, thoughtful, poignant to the last possible degree. And the finale opens with a question, indicated by Beethoven himself: "Must it be?" - and answers “It Must Be!” Question and answer are hurled at each other - but the affirmative answer wins. Coming from a man as near death as Beethoven then was, that is an amazing testament to his indomitable spirit, and remains so to this day.