|Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Complete String Quartets
Early String Quartets
Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 (1798-1800) [28:49]
Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2 (1798-1800) [23:50]
Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18/3 (1798-1800) [28:48]
Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18/4 (1798-1800) [23:48]
Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18/5 (1798-1800) [28:26]
Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18/6 (1798-1800) [24:20]
Middle String Quartets
Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6)
Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59/2 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6)
Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59/3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1805/6)
Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ‘The Harp’ (pub.
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [20:51]
Late String Quartets
Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [37:19]
Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [37:25]
Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [42:30]
Große Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (1825-26) [17:17]
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [44:54]
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [24:42]
Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo (violin I); Frederick Lifsitz
(violin II); Paul Yarbrough (viola); Sandy Wilson (cello))
rec. 9-13, 24-30 June and 10-16 November 2008, American Academy of
Arts and Letters, New York City, USA. DDD
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2005 [9 CDs: 522:11]
“A majority of musicians would probably agree
in regarding Beethoven’s string quartets as the highest
peak in the whole range of chamber music.” Roger
Music’, ed. Alec Robertson, Penguin Books, pub.1957)
Over the last decade or so I have had the opportunity to play
and consider the merits of several sets of the complete Beethoven
string quartets. In particular I recall the accounts from the
Bartók Quartet/Hungaroton, Juilliard Quartet/Sony, Italian
Quartet/Philips, Guarneri Quartet/BMG RCA, Alban Berg Quartet/EMI
Classics, Lindsays/ASV, Medici Quartet/Nimbus, Amadeus Quartet/Deutsche
Grammophon and Takács Quartet/Decca.
My benchmark of the complete quartets has been the series from
the Takács on Decca. The 7 discs were recorded in 2001-04
at St. George’s Church, Bristol and released on three
separate volumes: early quartets 470 848-2, middle quartets
470 847-2 and late quartets 470 849-2. With the advantage of
splendid sound quality the assured Takács play with impressive
momentum, vitality and intensity. Their dynamics are broad yet
their liberal use of vibrato never feels excessive. Perfectly
matched, these are coherent performances without any hint of
There are three sets of the late quartets and Große
Fuge that deserve attention. I have enjoyed the Emerson
accounts. They demonstrate awesome energy and robust character.
They were recorded at the American Academy and Institute of
Arts and Letters, NYC in 1994-95 and issued on Deutsche Grammophon
474-341-2. Also deserving of praise are the Alban Berg Quartet
(ABQ) who play with great intensity and impeccable security
of ensemble. The ABQ were recorded live in 1989 at the Mozartsaal
Konzerthaus, Vienna (EMI Classics 4 76820 2). I also admire
the superbly performed historic accounts by the Busch Quartet
recorded in mono at the Abbey Road Studios, London and the Liederkranz
Hall, NYC in 1932-37 (EMI Classics 5 09655 2). Although these
are successfully remastered performances the Busch is not a
set that I often play these days for pleasure as I find it hard
to get past the seventy year old sound quality.
There are several single discs that can stand up to the very
best accounts included in the late quartets or complete sets.
One of the finest of these involve accounts of the Quartet
in B flat major, Op. 18/6 and Quartet in E flat major,
Op. 127 from the exceptional Henschel Quartet who recently celebrated
their 15 year anniversary since formation. These performances,
recorded in 2004 at Munich, are both sparkling and exhilarating
and reveal considerable empathic insights (Arte Nova 82876 63996
For performances on period instruments one need look no further
than the accounts from Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve.
Mosaïques must surely be the greatest string quartet ensemble
of our time performing on authentic instruments. Recorded at
the Grafenegg Schloss, Alte Reitschule in Austria there are
currently three single volumes: Op.18/5 and 6 from 1994 on Naïve
E 8541, Op.18/1 and 4 from 2004 on Naïve E 8899 and Op.18/2
and 3 recorded in 2005 on Naïve E 8902. These beautifully
played and recorded performances inhabit a rather reserved and
unidiomatic world. For those who prefer their Beethoven string
quartets played less cautiously with lashings of additional
spirit on instruments with modern set-ups there are better opportunities
in the catalogues. Yesterday in the Times 2 newspaper
I read a review of the Mosaïques playing at the Edinburgh
International Festival at the Usher Hall on 24 August 2009.
Their recital was interrupted on four occasions: twice for illness
in the audience and twice for broken gut strings. The fragility
of using authentic instruments must undoubtedly be frustrating
when playing in recital but thankfully technical malfunctions
do not affect the enjoyment of their recordings.
Outside the USA the Alexander
String Quartet (ASQ) may be new to some. The ASQ was formed
in New York City in 1981 and are now San Francisco based. In
1985 they became the first American ensemble to win the London
International String Quartet Competition gaining the jury’s
highest award and also the Audience Prize. It is a mark of their
consistency and discipline that they celebrated their 25th Anniversary
in 2006. In 1996/97 with former leader Ge-Fang Yang (their first
violin from 1992-2002) the ASQ recorded their first complete
Beethoven quartet cycle for BMG's Munich-based label Arte Nova.
The recordings produced over a three year period at St. Stephens
Church, Belvedere, Marin County in California seem to have been
issued initially as nine individual discs, released as a set
in 1999 on Arte Nova Classics on 74321-63637-2 and subsequently
reissued and repackaged on Arte Nova ANO 636370 (see
For Foghorn these new performances were recorded in 2008 in
three separate sessions over 19 days. “For their superb
sound qualities” the ASQ have chosen to play the Ellen
M. Egger quartet of loaned instruments constructed by the San
Francisco maker Francis Kuttner about twenty years ago. Cellist
Sandy Wilson tells me that the Kuttner set is, “superb
to play - wonderfully adjusted and I dare even say ‘easy’
and responsive in every way.”
To record the complete Beethoven quartets is a marvellous achievement
and I can only imagine all the hard work and scrupulous preparation
that the ASQ must have put in. I have enjoyed and have been
consistently impressed with their excellent performances. They
took this listener through the odyssey of Beethoven’s
string quartets reaching deep inside the core of the music.
The performances are unfailingly fresh and musically compelling.
The interpretations are crisp and polished, full of perceptively
observed detail; alert to the smallest change of accent and
nuance. Tempos are never over-forced and neither are the dynamic
contrasts. At the same time they are never afraid of imparting
a vigorous bite to the Scherzos. Especially impressive
is their superb intonation and immaculate ensemble whilst each
player remains a solidly characterised individual. First violin
Zak Grafilo is smoothly expressive, responsive and flawless
throughout. Today I would place Grafilo in the same elevated
league as eminent quartet leaders: Christoph Henschel of the
Henschel, Edward Dusinberre of the Takács, Jan Talich
of the Talich, alternating leaders Eugene Drucker and Philip
Setzer of the Emerson and Corina Belcea-Fisher of the Belcea.
Their use of vibrato is careful. I was interested in comparing
the amount of vibrato used by some of the rival sets. Quatuor
Mosaïques, as one would expect with their authentic performance
practice are extremely sparing yet I was also aware of their
narrow dynamic range. The Henschels on Arte Nova employ vibrato
judiciously with the Takács on Decca exercising a slightly
more liberal approach. The accounts that employed vibrato more
substantially included the Borodins on Chandos, the Italian
Quartet on Philips, the Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon, the
Alban Berg on EMI, the Amadeus on Deutsche Grammophon, the Lindsays
on ASV and the Busch on EMI.
I have made some observations on the accounts that I have enjoyed
the most. Divided into Beethoven’s three stylist periods
the Foghorn set follows a generally chronological order. The
first volume comprises the op. 18 works, composed in 1798/1800
and dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz.
The Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 is the finest
of the op. 16 set. I loved the grand gestures from the ASQ in
the Allegro con brio. In the Adagio affettuoso ed
appassionato the deep concentration from the players is
remarkable, bringing out the music’s tragic and intense
nature said to be inspired by the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet. The glittering brilliance of the vivacious
Scherzo is followed by the bubbly Allegro, Finale
played with sureness and a ‘light on its feet’
The five middle quartets composed between 1805 and 1810 are
on volume 2. The substantial F major Quartet
No. 8, the first of the op. 59 ‘Razumovsky’
set, is arguably the most impressive. There is a heady mixture
of gritty determination and underlying tenderness in the opening
Allegro. The awareness and ensemble from the ASQ is impeccable
in the idyllic mood of the Scherzo. Dreamy and melancholy,
nothing is exaggerated and everything is refined in the Adagio;
a magnificent movement and a great achievement. Based
on a Russian folk-song in the Allegro, Finale the
players convey a substantial feeling of intensity, maintaining
shape and momentum.
A particular favourite is the Quartet No. 10, Op. 74
known as ‘The Harp’. The ASQ in the restless
opening movement Poco Adagio: Allegro brim over
with ideas, often sharp, brash and bold, sometimes mellow and
submissive. I love the way the beautiful and refined song-like
Adagio ma non troppo balances a sense of nostalgic longing
with restraint. Hammering out its fierce rhythms the playing
of the exultant Scherzo leaves one breathless. Impressive
is the gear shift at 3:44 where the dynamic weight lessens markedly.
Rather reserved in manner, the Finale, a graceful theme
and set of variations, gives way to a short and thrilling Coda.
Evidently Beethoven himself gave the nickname ‘Serioso’
to his Quartet No. 11, Op. 95. The terse and compact
opening Allegro con brio feels hewn from stone, conveying
a keen effect of forward motion. An underlying tension prevails
in a Adagio ma non troppo that never allows the listener
completely to relax. Boisterous by threat rather than by overt
aggression the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso serves
as the Scherzo. I was struck by a slow introduction of
dark foreboding in the Finale that shifts swiftly to
music of a joyous celebratory character. At 4:15 the boisterous
Coda brings an astonishing mood-change with a headlong
race to the finishing post.
Volume 3 contains the five late great string quartets and the
Große Fuge - all composed in 1824-26. Widely acknowledged
as remarkable music and so ahead of its time this new dimension
in chamber music still remains challenging for performers and
In the Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 I was
especially impressed with the immense second movement Adagio
ma non troppo e molto cantabile. It is almost twice as long
as the next in length. Designed as a theme and variations with
Coda this is full of glorious writing often of a contemplative
quality played with passionate conviction. I found the Allegro,
Finale a welcoming movement of childlike innocence. Some
of the rhythms have a gypsy feel providing a contrast with a
certain rustic simplicity.
An enigmatic masterpiece of the genre the Quartet No. 13,
Op. 130 is a long work, lasting over 42 minutes in this performance.
The score embraces a breathtaking ambit of emotions from the
simply playful to ecstatic outpourings of tortured angst. The
Cavatina marked Adagio molto espressivo is remarkable.
The Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 is said to be Beethoven's
favourite of the late quartets. It consists of seven movements
designed to be played without a break. The centre-piece is the
fourth movement Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile -
a set of six variations based on a simple theme. This is inspired
playing here done with touching expression that yet demonstrates
the ASQ’s firm grip on the music. The Finale, Allegro
is performed with vigour and exuberance. The assured players
provide an almost relentless forward momentum that only briefly
stops for breath.
Intended as Beethoven’s original Finale to the
Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 the colossal Große
Fuge in B flat major was published separately as his Op.
133. The individuality of the Große Fuge is remarkable.
It comprises three fugal sections each with contrasting tempi.
For many listeners it’s a tough nut to crack. The ASQ
are uncompromising in their power, intensity and spiritual depth.
In A minor the Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 has a conspicuous
five movement arch-structure. It’s a massive work that
here takes some 45 minutes. The central movement Molto Adagio
- Andante, at nearly 17 minutes, is by far the lengthiest
and the keystone of the score. Written by Beethoven after a
period of illness he named this movement his ‘Holy
Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity…’
This series of double variations uses a chorale melody contrasted
with an energetic section. I was struck by the glorious playing
of the ASQ. They offer rapt concentration and heartfelt intensity.
It leaves a powerful impression.
The final work of the complete set is the Quartet No. 16,
Op. 135. Lasting just under 25 minutes it never attempts to
plumb the great emotional depths of the other late quartets.
The opening movement Allegretto is splendidly played
with the ASQ maintaining the prevailing pensive and rather gloomy
mood. By contrast the Scherzo is performed with fiery
petulant tone and jarring and syncopated rhythms.
I found the sound quality of this to be immediate and crystal
clear. It is a pity that the comparative dryness of the recording
inevitably means that some instrumental tone colour is lost.
Closely recorded, the balance fits splendidly into the sound
Of the rival versions the most satisfying sound to satisfy my
ideal is from Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve. The Mosaïques
also have the advantage in performing on warmly recorded gloriously
rich-toned authentic instruments fitted with gut strings and
period bows. On Arte Nova the Henschel with their magnificent
instruments in modern set-ups provide appealingly clear, slightly
warm and well balanced sonics. Of the other accounts with modern
strings and bows the Borodins on Chandos are warmly recorded
and decently balanced as are the Italian Quartet on Philips
on their digitally remastered analogue accounts. I would describe
the Emersons on Deutsche Grammophon and the Alban Berg Quartet
on EMI as reasonably clear and well balanced. By contrast I
was also impressed with the ice cool, vividly clear and well
balanced sound from the Takács on Decca. Of the historical
performances the mono accounts from the Busch Quartet on EMI
have been digitally remastered to a standard exceptional for
their age. Obviously a stumbling block for many, the mono sound
is clearly no match for modern digital recordings.
To summarise: the ASQ provide a most natural feel to their interpretations.
I admired their splendidly matched phrasing together with an
intuitive grasp of structure. The dynamics are rarely overstated
and their choice of tempi feels just right. The exceptionally
clear and dry sound is closely caught. I loved the quite exceptional
essays from musicologist Eric Bromberger. These add appeal to
the overall presentation. The ASQ can take considerable credit
from these superb interpretations. Their dedication and insight
has paid off as this set is one of the very finest available.
The Takács on Decca are now no longer clear first choice
in the catalogue. This Foghorn set is unquestionably one of
my ‘Records of the Year’ for 2009.
Also available in 3 separate volumes:
FOGHORN CLASSICS Vol. 1 CD1996 [3CDs: 52:45 + 48:37
FOGHORN CLASSICS Vol. 2 CD1999 [3CDs: 41:11 + 70:29
FOGHORN CLASSICS Vol. 3 CD2002 [3CDs: 74:54 + 59:51