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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets
Tokyo String Quartet
Track-listing, recording dates and venues at end of review
rec. 2005-2008.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807641.48 SACD [8 discs: 8:24:00]

Since their founding in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, the Tokyo Quartet have amassed a fine and distinguished array of recordings for various labels, mostly to great critical acclaim. It was with sadness to many that the quartet disbanded in 2013 after their longest serving members, the second violin Kikuei Ikeda and viola Kazuhide Isomura, decided to retire. Their final concert took place in Norfolk, Connecticut on 6 July 2013. For the last ten years of their existence, they recorded for Harmonia Mundi, including this Beethoven quartet cycle set down between 2005 and 2008. This is the second time they have taken these works into the studio, a previous traversal was recorded for RCA between 1989 and 1992. This present set was originally issued as separate volumes and it is commendable that Harmonia Mundi have issued this boxed aggregation at a more than affordable price.

Despite the fact that Beethoven was heavily indebted to Haydn and Mozart, in the six Op. 18 Quartets, although utilizing to some extent the conventions of the eighteenth century, the composer begins to find his unique voice. These are beautifully articulated performances, imbued with elegance and charm. Tempi, dynamics and phrasing all seem just right. There is drama when called for. In the fourth quartet, the only one of the set in a minor key, there is pathos and unease in the opening movement. The second movement is delicately bowed, and is one of the most polished performances I have heard. The Menuetto’s discreetly accented first beats are tastefully executed.

Written six years later than Op. 18, the three Op. 59 Quartets reveal a greater maturity. These ‘middle period’ works are more powerful, profound and proportionally larger. They are noticeably more technically challenging and demonstrate a greater dramatic and psychological profile. Commissioned by Count Razumovsky, a patron of the arts and Russian Ambassador in Vienna, the first two of the set incorporate Russian themes. The opening movement of Op.59 No. 1, perhaps the most well-known of the set, is well paced and relaxed. After an ardently played Adagio, the finale brims with excitement, verve and vigour. The tension and drama is saved for No. 2 in E minor, my favourite of the set.

Of the next two, Op. 95 seems to give a foretaste of what is to follow in the late quartets with its condensed and sparser textures. In fact, CD 5 which houses this and the Op. 74 I consider one of the highlights of the set. Here, the qualities which make this cycle so compelling are tangibly to the fore – sense of line, structure, ensemble and rhythmic elasticity.

The ground-breaking late quartets embark on new avenues of exploration. Alongside the other great quartet composers – Haydn, Shostakovich and Bartók – no composer revolutionized the genre to the extent that Beethoven did. Difficult to bring off successfully, there are no problems here. Some performances of the late quartets have seemed rambling with no sense of structure. The more I listen to their Op. 132 in A minor, the more I am in awe of their feel for the narrative of this lengthy complex work. The Adagio is slightly slower than I’m used to but is exquisitely realized with burnished sonority and refinement of expression. The whole five movements are logically sequenced and integrated into a polished performance of ineffable beauty.

Whilst I’ve always enjoyed the Tokyo’s previous cycle, which was boxed up and re-released by Sony in 2012, this more recent recording constitutes, for me, a more desirable proposition. Comparing the two sets in a head-to-head, the SACD sound of this latest offering is brighter, more immediate and conveys more intimacy. In the earlier cycle the sound is more rounded and smooth with the rough edges ironed out. Emotions are more reined in, with the players seeming to favour more elegance and a curbing of excess. These later readings are more rugged, intense and impassioned, an approach I find more appealing. I sense more robustness and grit, which are essential ingredients. Also, the Tokyo’s playing is now minus some distracting closely-miked sniffs and grunts which beset the previous set, especially those occurring on bowed upbeats.

The final thoughts of the Tokyo players on these pinnacles of the chamber repertoire can be enthusiastically endorsed. They have given me many hours of edifying pleasure. For those who have the equipment to enjoy the SACD sound to its full, which unfortunately I haven’t, these inspired readings should be self-recommending. The Quartet play on a set of Stradivarius instruments once owned by Paganini and loaned to them since 1995 by the Nippon Foundation, Japan. Detailed analytical notes on each of the quartets in English, French and German are an added bonus. In short, what better way to bow out after a 44 year career; it doesn’t get much better than this.

Stephen Greenbank


CD 1 [72:57]
No. 1 in F Op. 18 No. 1 (1798-1800) [27.25]
No. 2 in G Op. 18 No. 2 (1798-1800) [22.32]
No. 3 in D Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800) [22.43]

CD 2 [73:58]
No. 4 in c minor Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800) [27.52]
No. 5 in A Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800) [27.17]
No. 6 in B flat Op. 18 No. 6 (1798-1800) [23.10]
rec. May 2006, February 2007, Fischer Centre for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Allandale-on-Hudson, New York

CD 3 [76:58]
No. 7 in F Rasumovsky Op. 59 No. 1 (1805-06) [40.37]
No. 8 in e Rasumovsky Op. 59. No. 2 (1805-06) [36.19]

CD 4 [31:20]
No. 9 in C Rasumovsky Op. 59 No. 3 (1805-06) [31.20]
rec. April 2005, Skywalker Sound, A Lucasfilm Ltd. Company, Marin County, California

CD 5 [52:33]
No. 10 in E flat Harp Op. 74 (1809) [31.03]
No. 11 in f minor Serioso Op. 95 (1810) [21.22]
rec. November 2007, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, New York

CD 6 [72:54]
No. 12 in E flat Op. 127 (1823-24) [35.29]
No. 14 in c sharp minor Op. 131 (1826) [37.25]
rec. May 2008, Fischer Centre for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Allandale-on-Hudson, New York

CD 7 [58:21]
No. 13 in B flat Op. 130 (1825-26) [31.56]
Grosse Fuge in B flat Op. 133 (1825-26) [16.19]
No. 13 in B flat Op. 130 (cont. 6th mov.) [10:06]

CD 8 [67:10]
No. 15 in a minor Op. 132 (1825) [43.32]
No. 16 in F Op. 135 (1826) [23.38]*
rec. August-September 2008, Oji Hall, Tokyo, Japan, *8 November 2007, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, New York