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Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets


Contents of this page:

  • Early Quartets (Op. 18)
  • Middle Quartets (Opp. 59, 74, 95)
  • Late Quartets (Opp. 127, 130-133, 135)
  • Comments on complete sets

  • Posted to: rec.music.classical.recordings
    Subject: Beethoven String Quartets
    Date: Tue, 26 Nov 1996

    Eric Bur wrote:
    I was wondering if anyone could recommend their favorite Beethoven string quartet recording? Thanks

    Okay boys and girls, here goes. Hold your breath.

    In many cases, it seems like it really doesn't pay to buy the Beethoven string quartets individually. It's too easy to get the pieces in bigger chunks, and often as complete sets. So this is one of the rare exceptions to my rule of not getting complete sets. Having said that, I'll start by groups.

  • Early Quartets (Op. 18)

    With Op. 18, Beethoven really started to mark his departure from the Classical Style epitomized by Haydn and Mozart. The style of the Op. 18 quartets, though, is still indebted to the previous two trailblazers, and is distinctly different from the late quartets. To these ears, at least, it really benefits from a light touch and not too much dwelling on the profundities of things.

    The finest set of the Op. 18 quartets that I've ever laid ears on is the Budapest Quartet's performances from a Library of Congress concert series, issued on CBS Masterworks Portrait as a 2-CD set. This quartet's strongest points are a strong sense of ensemble and luscious, tasteful old-fashioned sound, and this series captured the quartet at one of its artistic highpoints. None makes any more sense of Op. 18/2 than they.

    Among modern recordings, one set that impressed me greatly was the RCA 3-CD issue featuring the Cleveland Quartet (prior to their new Teldec series; I don't know this cycle). Stunning ensemble, lovingly phrased, but sadly spreadeagled over three CDs. Another fine set is the Alban Berg Quartet on 3 EMI CDs (and frankly, the Alban Berg's smooth homogeneity makes this the only set of Beethoven recordings recommendable from this group).

  • Middle Quartets (Opp. 59, 74, 95)

    These quartets hail from Beethoven's astounding "middle period" in his output, when he semed to dash off one masterpiece after another. These are almost certainly the best introduction to his quartet output, and are among the first to require a greater measure of interpretive depth.

    Here, unfortunately, many groups fall short; I'd avoid the Budapests or the Alban Bergs in these or the late quartets, for instance. The most successful recordings that I know of hail from complete sets; the Quartetto Italiano, the Amadeus, the Lindsays, and the Vegh have done fine efforts here, for starters. More later.

  • Late Quartets (Opp. 127, 132, 130, 133, 131, 135)

    These works comprise Beethoven's final thoughts in large forms, and are intensely private music, intended for the appreciation of a select few friends, rather than a large public audience. It is said that with these works, Beethoven invented the avant-garde. Schubert was among the first rabid aficionados of these works, and Stravinsky hailed the Grosse Fuge (Op. 133, original finale to Op. 130) as that absolutely modern piece of music, now and forever. If you listen to these works in the aforementioned order (i.e., the original order of composition), you can experience Beethoven's remarkable growth as a composer even in this final period. His structures grow steadily more and more complex with each essay (at the simplest level, there is one additional movement with each quartet), culminating with his masterwork, Op. 131. He then takes one fond look back at the Classical era, whose foundations he shook irretrievably, with Op. 135. (In his own distinct way, of course; the slow movement of Op. 135 can easily be mistaken for Mahler if taken at the right tempo.)

    These are the quartets that test an ensemble's mettle, and my favorites again hail from complete sets, detailed a bit below.

  • Some thoughts on complete set issues

    Be forewarned, by the way, that while I've heard a lot of recordings of these pieces, and compared them back to back in most cases, my memories of some are very few, and I've never laid ears on others. So there are some sets that others speak lovingly of (first Juilliard cycle on CBS, Kodaly on Naxos, Fitzwilliams on London) that I can't corroborate or dispute. But I can certainly believe a few claims. Here goes.

  • Hungarian Quartet
    The cheapest set of known value is EMI's 7-CD set of the Hungarian Quartet. My memories of this cycle from a Seraphim LP set are pretty dim; I recall some wonderful things with the Op. 59, and surprisingly little else. However, their first violinist, Zoltan Szekeley, was a musician of real stature (among other things, the dedicatee of the 2nd Bartok Violin Concerto!). So it's probably a worthwhile entry.

  • Amadeus Quartet
    Another relatively cheap set (possibly not available at present) is the 7-CD issue on DG with the Amadeus Quartet. Many are turned off by the significant intonation problems that the 1st violinist, Norbert Brainin, inflicted on us. The most common criticism is that they're a bit too facile, too slick for this intentionally difficult music (especially the late quartets). For some reason, I remain unconvinced by these arguments. Their precision of execution is as impressive in its own way as the Budapests or the Alban Bergs. But to me, it seems like they probe much deeper than the aforementioned pair. And their ability to make the rough places plain can sometimes be turned into spectacular advantage; to these ears, they clarify the counterpoint in the Grosse Fuge like no ensemble that I've ever heard. Their pizzicato and ponticello effects in the scherzo to Op. 131 are simply breathtaking, and leave any other performance in the dust. And I feel that there are times when their high-voltage music making can't be beat; the finales to Op. 59/3 and Op. 131, their jolting Op. 18/4, and their intense Heiliger Dankgesang come to mind. Incidentally, the quartet themselves confide that their proudest moments on disc are their recordings of Op. 131, Op. 132, and the Schubert Quintet with William Pleeth. Not hard for me to hear why. Their Op. 18, though, is a bit driven for my taste. But their sets of the middle and late quartets more than make up for it.

  • Quartetto Italiano
    I used to be very keen on the Quartetto Italiano, which appear to be making their way to CD in a series of Philips Duo twofers. I still love what they do with Debussy, Ravel, and Mozart, but I'm beginning to grow cold to their Beethoven. It's tonally lush, technically impeccable, but they just don't make sense out of the music in a way that appeals to me. Their recording of the slow movements of Opp. 127 and 131 are emblematic of the problem -- variation movements turning into exercises in free association.

  • Vegh Quartet
    Another, very different style of music making comes from the Vegh Quartet, a veritable all-star team of talented musicians. The leader, Sandor Vegh, is an accomplished violinist, chamber musician, and conductor, and two other members of the group have also made wonderful music with Arthur Grumiaux. Their cycle is on Valois, and stretches to 8 CD's. The tempi are a good deal slower, and the expression therefore is extremely intense. Again, they are sometimes a bit too much for the early quartets and Op. 135, but in the glorious middle and late quartets, they are spectacular. A truly intelligent reading of the Grosse Fuge. One potential problem is recorded sound -- the acoustic is extremely echoey, and somewhat murky. It almost becomes an advantage with their vision of Op. 130, though.

  • Talich Quartet
    Unfortunately, the astute reader may have noticed that almost all of the aforementoined groups (like most of my favorite rock bands -- sigh) have at least one member who is now dead, and their work has passed into history. One of the finest active quartets is the Talich Quartet, whose first violinist is related to the great Czech conductor of the same name. They have an 8-CD set on Calliope, with many fine things about it (I have very fond memories of a Frick Collection recital including Op. 95). The major downside to this set is that the recording acoustic sounds more like a bathtub than anything else. Even the Hungarians, in mono, sound better than this!

  • Not my favorites
    I should stop to say that there are several complete sets which, at least IMSO, should be avoided. The Juilliard's digital remakes for CBS feature a Robert Mann (lead violinist) whose intonation is no longer nearly what it once was, and an ensemble which is not as tight or insightful as they were in younger days. The Alban Bergs are smooth, smooth, smooth. Lovely for Op. 18 (and Op. 74, for that matter), but not nearly meaty enough for the bulk of the middle or late quartets. Many praise the Tokyo's new effort on RCA. What I've heard of it (some Op. 59, one of the lates) left me underwhelmed. The Budapests are strictly to be avoided after Op. 18; ensemble falls apart, and then the point to them disappears. The Borodins, on Chandos, phrase in the grand, romantic manner, and at least to these ears, pull the structure apart.

  • Lindsay Quartet
    I've saved the best for last. First, my current cost-is-not-an-issue recommendation for the complete quartets is the staggering series done by the Lindsay Quartet (also still active!) for ASV. These same discs are available for much less than import price (though still expensive) from the Musical Heritage Society. The spacing on these discs is abominable; I think they take 10 discs, some with thirty minutes of music on them, to cover the cycle. But the playing is something else. It's not always pretty playing, and there are occasional jarring lapses of intonation. But the Lindsays dig into this music like their lives depend on it. Moreover, they are one of the few groups that seem to accomplish the string quartet ideal of unity from diversity; each member of the quartet plays with their own distinctive, unforgettable voice. And yet, somehow these four voices add up to a collective whole which is far greater than the sum of its parts. They play with as much intelligence and regard for structure and architecture as anyone I've heard. And there are some moments that are truly magical. Their recording of the Heiliger Dankgesang from Op. 132 revels in ringing open fifths, and is two or three minutes slower than any other recording I've heard. You really *feel* like you're living out the illness! The recording quality is fair, which makes it a damn sight better than most of the current issues.

  • Busch Quartet
    Finally, of course, no post from me is complete without a plug for 78 rpm surface noise. The group which really resurrected the complete quartets from obscurity was the Busch Quartet, and their alas, incomplete set of recorded quartets, available variously from Biddulph and EMI, is revelatory, even in light of the fifty years of recorded quartets that followed. Adolf Busch, the first violinist, was in many ways the ideal chamber musician; his purity of phrasing and uncompromising intellectual rigor laid the way for the Marlboro Festival and much else that is wonderful about American chamber music. The ensemble recorded Op. 18/1, Op. 59/3, Op. 95, Op. 127, Op. 131, Op. 132, and Op. 135 for EMI in the 1930's. Each is staggering in its own way, and any true aficionado of this music needs to at least hear these discs once in their life. The group was forced to flee Europe with the rise of Nazi Germany (Busch's son-in-law, the pianist Rudolf Serkin, was Jewish, and Busch stood with his family). In the United States, the Busch Quartet recorded Op. 130 (and Op. 133?) for CBS. However, by this time, the quality of the ensemble ahd begun to fall apart a bit, and while it's still a great recording, it doesn't hold up with their earlier work.

  • Final thoughts
    There are also two noteworthy individual CD's that I've picked up recently: one of the Fitzwilliam Quartet in an astounding Opp. 130/133 on Decca and the other of the Yale Quartet in Opp. 132 and 135. The Fitzwilliam do the B-flat quartet as slowly as anyone I've heard, and have a Lindsay-like quality throughout. They may go a bit too far in the Grosse Fuge, which strikes me as pulled out of shape, but the ringing fifths of the Cavatina make it worth hearing. (I'd love to hear more, and wonder if these are going to be reissued soon.) The Yale Quartet CD was picked up as a cutout at Tower Records, and I'm still listening to it -- further reactions to follow. Also have yet to hear the Hollywood Quartet on Testament or Quatour Mosaiques's emerging cycle on Harmonia Mundi.
  • Done holding your breath? I'm impressed. =8^)

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