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Beethoven: String Quartet op.127


2012-03-20 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-11-08 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet added
2013-08-06 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-09 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction / The Recordings

Here’s another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in E flat, op.127. References to the CDs are given at the bottom of the respective section, or in one of the related postings, or see the summary on the postings covering Beethoven’s String Quartets. Here’s a short list of the recordings in this comparison, in alphabetic order:


The Composition

The String Quartet in E flat major, op.127, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.1, score sampleMy musings about the tempo: the introduction doesn’t really have a tempo annotation — Maestoso is more about the character of the introduction than about the tempo. Actually, Beethoven writes this in 2/4 time — but then systematically destroys the rhythm by using syncopes in bars 2 and 4 (out of 5), so the listener doesn’t really get a feel for the time notation in use. Consequently, there is a lot of variation in the tempo of the introduction (1/4 = 28 up to 45), whereas the tempi chosen for the Allegro are much more uniform (1/4 = 144 up to 170).

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I (12/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.2, score sample, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabileBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.2, score sample, Andante con motoBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.2, score sample, Adagio molto espressivoBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.2, score sample, Tempo IThis movement consists of several sections:

  • an initial Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8),
  • an Andante con moto (4/4) that does not directly relate to the first part,
  • an Adagio molto espressivo (17 bars, alla breve), and finally,
  • a Tempo I section, again in 12/8 time. This is not a return to the beginning, but mostly new material: the main “parenthesis” is in the 12/8 measures, except for some reminiscences from the first part.

Hard to Understand?

In these late quartets, Beethoven’s forms start to “fall apart”, in that they no longer tend to follow a rigid sonata movement, such as a standard rondo form. He often seems to embed “foreign bodies” in a movement. This may be one reason — especially in longer movements — which makes these quartets hard(er) to understand. This movement is one such example.

On the other hand, tempo relations may help “keeping things together”:

Options in Tempo Relations?

  1. Playing the Tempo I at the tempo of the initial Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile: Alban Berg Quartet, Quartetto Italiano, Melos Quartett, Artemis Quartet, Hagen Quartett, Emerson String Quartet, and the Takács Quartet do this. However, that’s of limited value to the listener (even though it seems correct): that last section mostly consists of new material, and the two parts are well separated anyway. Also, the listener’s “tempo feeling” may change in the course of a 15 minute movement.
  2. The Quartetto Italiano takes quarters in the Andante (4/4) at the pace of eighths in the first part (12/8). From the metronome numbers. Other ensembles appear to come close to this, but the effect is lost if the transition is preceded by a strong / lengthy ritardando.
  3. The LaSalle and Amadeus Quartets take the quarters in the Adagio molto espressivo (4/4) at half the pace of the quarters in the Andante con moto (alla breve).
  4. Taking the 3/8 units in Tempo I at the pace of the quarters of the preceding Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve), as Leipziger Streichquartett, Alban Berg Quartet, Melos Quartett, Endellion String Quartet, and Takács Quartet do. The disadvantage is that the Adagio molto espressivo is not really heard alla breve (but rather as 4/4). The Hagen Quartett takes an better approach by not taking the Adagio molto espressivo too slow (after all, it’s alla breve!), but at the transition to the Tempo I, taking 1/8 of the 12/8 time at the pace of 1/8 in the preceding alla breve; this gives a chance to play the alla breve as such.

The Alban Berg, Melos, Hagen, Endellion, and Takács Quartets manage to combine options 1 and 4 above, the Quartetto Italiano combines 1 and 2.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.3, score sample, Scherzando vivaceBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.3, score sample, AllegroBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.3, score sample, PrestoScherzando vivace isn’t really a tempo annotation, but more of a general characterization of that part of the movement- Yet, the artists more or less agree upon what the appropriate tempo is, essentially ranging from 1/4 = 170 up to 1/4 = 200 (3/4 time); interestingly, that part comes with two short (5 and 3 bars) inserts in 2/4 time with the annotation Allegro. One should assume there is a common understanding about what that means.

Yet, these inserts are played between 1/4 = 112 (LaSalle Quartet) and 1/4 = 190 (Emerson String Quartet, average values). But OK, because of the change in rhythm, the short duration of these inserts, and the “built-in acceleration” (these segments start with quarter notes and end with eights) that is even reinforced by some artists, the listener can barely get a feel for a tempo in these few bars. Nevertheless, these inserts may feel like strange disruptions in the musical flow.

The movement includes the remainder of what would normally be a Trio in the center of a Scherzo: a Presto in 3/4 time, with a quarter-note line going through the entire section (no shorter notes at all). Unanimously, the artists play this in entire bars, 3/4 = 148 (Melos Quartett) up to 3/4 = 202 (Emerson String Quartet), as if the music was written in 3/8, if not 6/8 time (with half the note values, of course).

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.4, score sample, FinaleBeethoven, string quartet op.127, mvt.4, score sample, Allegro con moto“By the book”, 6/8 time in that period ought to be played as two 3/8 half-measures, rather than basing the rhythm on 1/8 notes. On the other hand, playing two “Allegro beats” per measure (i.e., 3/8 = 100 to 120, maybe) is not doable, as almost throughout this part of the movement every eighth is split into sixteenth triplets. There is a need for some creativity here! The overall character should be Allegro con moto, though!

Timing Comparison

As one of the few things that one can actually “measure” in music performances, I’m giving the approximate metronome numbers for each of the movements in the text below. As these numbers are spread over the text, I felt it would help if I collected them in a table, shown below. I have used color coding to indicate relative rates: white would be the average tempo, blue fields are slower tempi, green indicates faster-than-average performances (where the strength of the color indicates the amount of deviation from the average). Some ensembles prefer slower tempi, others are faster throughout, some are “mixed bags” (click on table for full size view):Beethoven, string quartet op.127, comparison, M.M. tableThe metronome numbers for short segments were calculated from the overall duration (i.e., they are the average over the entire section). All numbers are to be regarded as approximations.

My Comments on the Individual Recordings

The order of the interpretations is not chronological (neither by recording / publishing date nor by purchase date), but follows my personal, subjective rating, my preferred recordings shown last:


Amadeus Quartet (1963)

Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Amadeus Quartet

DG 463 143-2 (stereo, 7 CD); ℗ 1962 / © 1974
Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1963, with Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’54”; 1/4 = 34 (Maestoso) — 156 (Allegro)
The Maesoso is static. In the Allegro, the first violin (dominating as usual with this ensemble) executes teneramente / dolce as “with lots of vibrato and portamenti“, which makes this hard to listen to: an occasional portamento may be tolerable — but then, the other instruments would need to do that as well. The tone is rough, the serene, heavenly ending isn’t.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

15’14”; 3/8 = 30 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 86 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 43 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 35 (Tempo I)
The portamenti might be OK (though there are many) — but the vibrato is awful: often synchronized (doesn’t make it any better) and so strong in the first violin that the intonation is seriously suffering (sorry, can’t resist: one of Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous remarks [to a singer, though] was “The vibrato should not exceed the range of a minor third!”). The Andante con moto is rather mechanical, static — never elegant, never tender. Tempo relations: the second Adagio is at half the speed of the Andante.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’06”; 1/4 = 180 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 164 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 163 (Presto)
The articulation is not precise, lacks sound, is sometimes even careless. The tempi are close to those of the Alban Berg Quartett.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’37”; 1/2 = 118 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 48 (Allegro con moto)
No coordination issues, but superficial & rough articulation, as usual in these recordings. The tempo in the Allegro con moto is OK, played as 6/8.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 1.8 (2 / 1 / 2 / 2)

Guarneri String Quartet (1969)

Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Guarneri String Quartet (1969), CD coverBeethoven: The Late String Quartets, opp. 127, 130-133, 135

Guarneri String Quartet

RCA Victor / BMG Classics 60458-2-RG (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 1990
Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Guarneri String Quartet (1969), UPC-A barcode
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On the Artists

Recorded in 1969, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, and David Soyer. This is from their first recording of all Beethoven string quartets, five years after the ensemble was founded at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

7’30”; 1/4 = 34 (Maestoso) — 144 (Allegro)
The Allegro is probably at the lower limit (more of an Allegretto), sometimes static, lacking a target, drive, or a move forward; the return to the second Maestoso episode is somewhat inharmonic.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

15’24”; 3/8 = 31 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 98 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 41 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 35 (Tempo I)
Not very faithful in the dynamics in the Adagio, the vibrato fairly strong and sometimes synchronous; the Andante con moto is transparent, balanced, showing the polyphony. Tempo relations? not really.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’52”; 1/4 = 160 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 172 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 184 (Presto)
This is the slowest of the Scherzando interpretations here — barely vivace, maybe Allegretto. Also, it’s inaccurate in the intonation, lacks sound (not careful in the articulation). The Allegro inserts are faster than the vivace overall (see the comments on the Emerson String Quartet), but OK, as they start accelerating from the tempo of the vivace. The Presto appears too fast (not a question of absolute tempo!), rushed, superficial, and rhythmically inaccurate.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

7’01”; 1/2 = 100 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 50 (Allegro con moto)
Often just mf instead of p or pp; rather dense, not very transparent, the cellist reinforces some staccati / sf with his voice. The Allegro con moto is rhythmically not always well coordinated.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.2 (2 / 3 / 2 / 2)

Quartetto Italiano (1968)

Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD coverBeethoven: Complete String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Quartetto Italiano

Decca 454 062-2 (stereo, 10 CD); ℗ 1972 / © 1996
Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1968, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

7’01”; 1/4 = 32 (Maestoso) — 150 (Allegro)
Positive: dramatic, emotional, with drive, showing the big phrases, the “big bow” over the movement. On the other hand, there are some strange tempo variations (like: busy parts are played faster), and there are occasional synchronization issues, where individual voices are slightly running ahead.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

15’27”; 3/8 = 32 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 96 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 36 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 31 (Tempo I)
Some unnecessary “charging” of notes, could be more subtle in the dynamics, and there could be more emphasis on the long phrases. Occasionally, there are also synchronization issues in the agogics, and the intonation isn’t always quite clean. In the middle of the last section (Tempo I), in the crescendo prior to the pp / sotto voce, there is an odd accelerando that I don’t understand. On the positive side, Tempo I is pretty exactly the same as the initial Adagio, and the transition from that Adagio to the Andante con moto is very conclusive and harmonious (1/8 = 1/4).

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’37”; 1/4 = 170 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 155 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 154 (Presto)
The tempo in the Scherzando vivace is definitely better than with the Guarneri String Quartet, as is the articulation. Unfortunately, the intonation isn’t always clean. The Presto is mastered well, but sometimes clumsy.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

7’13”; 1/2 = 108 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 39 (Allegro con moto)
The first violin is somewhat too prominent, unnecessarily; fairly legato, dense, technically good, sometimes a bit coarse, could be more transparent, lighter. Some odd tempo changes (cutting artifacts?). The Allegro con moto is on the slow side, almost maestoso, played in 1/8 rather than 3/8 — otherwise OK.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.8 (3 / 2 / 3 / 3)

Emerson String Quartet (1997)

Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Emerson String Quartet

DG 447 075-2 (stereo, 7 CD); ℗ 1996
Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1997, with Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’56”; 1/4 = 36 (Maestoso) — 150 (Allegro)
I don’t think that binding the staccato notes in the Maestoso to the preceding notes corresponds to the notation — there isn’t even a phrasing slur to that effect. In the Allegro, the teneramente / dolce is taken extremely (too) soft, the tempo concept is strange (f parts are played substantially faster): for me, this interpretation makes the movement fall apart, I miss the big phrase, the dramatic concept covering the entire movement.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

14’23”; 3/8 = 35 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 102 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 42 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 34 (Tempo I)
Adagio: the very beginning is good, almost misterioso, without any vibrato — until the first violin starts, and thereafter, there’s too much vibrato, too many portamenti, the interpretation too sweet & soft in general, lacking evolution, and rhythmically often clumsy, boring. In the Andante con moto, there are moments when the instruments could act more as an ensemble, rather than as four individuals. In general, the vibrato here is fairly awful. Tempo relations: the outer Adagio sections share the same pace, other opportunities are not observed.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’13”; 1/4 = 170 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 191 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 202 (Presto)
The Scherzando vivace is OK per se — though with the Allegro inserts the listener falls “out of bed”: playing these inserts so much faster than the surrounding parts simply doesn’t make sense (to me). Finally, the Presto part is too fast: rushed, superficial, played like 3/8, if not 6/8.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’43”; 1/2 = 106 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 50 (Allegro con moto)
Technically brilliant, well articulated (some portamenti are too ostentative, though), light, transparent, balanced, and dynamically good. Could be more emotional, perhaps.

Recommendation: Not really.
Rating: 2.8 (2 / 3 / 2 / 4)

Endellion String Quartet (2008)

Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: Complete String Quartets, Quintets & Fragments

Endellion String Quartet

WCJ (Warner Classics & Jazz) 2564 69471-3 (stereo, 10 CD); ℗ / © 2008
Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2008, with Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman — for general remarks see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’53”; 1/4 = 39 (Maestoso) — 138 (Allegro)
The Maestoso is relatively fast (only the Leipziger Streichquartett and the Hagen Quartett are faster); this by itself would be OK — but there is this slight accelerando over these few bars which (to me) destroys the maestoso character, as well as that special “no rhythm” effect that Beethoven composed through these syncopated sforzati. In contrast to the introduction, the tempo in the Allegro part is at the lower limit (more like an Allegretto, if not Andante), and the movement feels rather loud in general (p is more like mf). In addition the agogics are slightly odd at times, e.g.: the rushed re-start after the general break in bar 32, and some strange ritardandi that disrupt the flow.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

14’20”; 3/8 = 36 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 94 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 36 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 37 (Tempo I)
The initial and the second Adagio, as well as the final Tempo I sections are all at a common pace, and the 1/8 in the initial Adagio corresponds to 1/4 in the Andante con moto — they obviously thought about tempo relations.

Unfortunately, the relations chosen come at a price: the beginning is fine, very calm — but thereafter, there is constant unrest in the Adagio, ma non troppo, e molto cantabile — I don’t think that this is the meaning of Adagio, ma non troppo: they interpret this as “not too calm” — this in my opinion is not the same as “calm, but not too much”. Plus, after all, there’s the molto cantabile annotation, too! Here, this section sounds like an Andante, if not Allegretto.

At the transition to the Tempo I section there’s a major intonation issue — even if this was caused by combining snippets from takes at different tuning (not ensuring constant tuning over recording sessions is a major mistake already!), it should not have been left in the final recording — very odd.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’24”; 1/4 = 168 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 145 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 176 (Presto)
Good tempo relations in this movement — though it sounds as if this was at the tempo limit: it’s vivid, lively — and fast to the point where articulation and coordination (in the Presto) start to suffer: for instance, the trills (already at the very beginning) have “no teeth”, are hardly recognizable as such. Also, the pp isn’t really.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’43”; 1/2 = 108 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 52 (Allegro con moto)
The first part is sometimes a bit mechanical, static — worse: there are some odd restarts after general breaks; I can’t really say what is wrong, but I feel that the flow is disrupted at such instances. It takes only a tiny fraction of a second for such a general break to lose the tension, and to break the continuity of the flow. On the bright(er) side, the Allegro con moto has a good tempo.

Recommendation: Not really.
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Busch Quartett (1936)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Busch Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: The Late Quartets opp.95, 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, 135

Busch Quartett

Pearl, Pavilion Records Ltd., GEMS 0053 (3 CDs); ℗ 1999
Beethoven, string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Busch Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1936, with Adolf Busch, Gösta Andreasson, Karl Doktor, Hermann Busch — for general comments see op.95.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’49”; 1/4 = 35 (Maestoso) — 153 (Allegro)
The Maestoso is done similar to the way the Emerson String Quartet does it, binding the staccato to the preceding note; over most of the movement, the first violin is too dominating (but this could be due to limitations in the recording technique).

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

16’45”; 3/8 = 25 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 96 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 35 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 30 (Tempo I)
The Adagio is definitely too slow (played on 12 beats, 1/8 = 75) — the melodies are overstretched beyond recognition; there is a lot of legato playing, which doesn’t help clarifying the structure. The Andante con moto is good, transparent. The Adagio molto espressivo is agin on the slow side, given that it is written alla breve. Not their best movement — probably due to the Zeitgeist.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

7’38”; 1/4 = 198 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 115 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 161 (Presto)
A very good interpretation, considering its age, without romanticisms. The Allegro inserts are very slow, unfortunately, definitely not allegro and causing a complete disruption in the flow. In the Presto, the accompaniment is not always clear — but this may be due to limitations in the recording technique which favors the outer voices.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’38”; 1/2 = 108 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 48 (Allegro con moto)
Lots of legato, limited transparency, and a dominating first violin (a “concert for violin and three strings”) — some of this probably due to the recording technique. Good tempo in the Allegro on moto, though the articulation is a bit soft, limiting the transparency.

Recommendation: A historic document
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 2 / 4 / 3)

LaSalle Quartet (1976)

Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, LaSalle Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: The Late String Quartets (opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, 135)

LaSalle Quartet

Brilliant Classics 94064 (3 CDs); ℗ / © 1997 (Deutsche Grammophon)
Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, LaSalle Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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On the Artists

Recorded in 1976, with Walter Levin, Henry W. Meyer, Peter Kamnitzer, and Jack Kirstein. The LaSalle Quartet was active from 1946 to 1987, founded by Walter Levin (1924 – 2017). Through teaching activities, they became “fathers” to several well-known quartet formations, such as the Alban Berg Quartett, and the Artemis Quartet. Even though the LaSalle Quartet was most famous for its performances of works from the Second Viennese School and works by newer composers such as Ligeti and Zemlinski, I think this recording of the late Beethoven quartets is remarkable, if not historic.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’16”; 1/4 = 33 (Maestoso) — 170 (Allegro)
Technically excellent, almost perfect, observing the notation in every detail. Sometimes, I miss the poetry in this music — their playing is often a bit abrupt (I could exaggerate and say “military”…), almost slightly schematic (but this was back in 1976!).

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

14’42”; 3/8 = 28 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 90 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 46 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 39 (Tempo I)
The Adagio is on the slow side, but OK: as they play less legato than the Busch Quartet, it is more structured for the listener. The Andante is good, except for some tendency for odd (unnecessary) crescendi towards peak or final notes in the first violin. One can feel some strong minds forming / shaping this movement. Tempo relations: the second Adagio is at half the speed of the Andante, but the transition obscures this relation.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’24”; 1/4 = 180 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 112 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 152 (Presto)
The Scherzando vivace is OK, balanced, with an eye (or an ear) on the lead / melody voice; the Allegro inserts, though, are way too slow, maybe Andante at best (falling out of bed on the other side, compared to the Emerson String Quartet!). The Presto is OK, joking, sometimes with a slightly clumsy humor.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’54”; 1/2 = 115 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 45 (Allegro con moto)
Very good playing, excellent balance (the first violin does not try dominating!). In the first part, the unison / sf passages are played slower, feel a bit clumsy; in the Allegro con moto, the tempo feels OK, natural (6/8).

Recommendation: One of the better traditional recordings.
Rating: 3.5 (4 / 4 / 3 / 3)

Alban Berg Quartett (1982)

Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Alban Berg Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: The Late String Quartets (opp. 127, 130-133, 135)

Alban Berg Quartett

EMI CDS 7 47135 8 (stereo, 4 CD); ℗ 1982 – 1984
Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Alban Berg Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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On the Artists

Recorded in 1982, with Günther Pichler, Gerhard Schulz, Thomas Kakuska, and Valentin Erben.

The Alban Berg Quartet was active between 1971 and 2008 and covered a wide spread of quartet literature, from the Viennese classic and Romantic periods to — obviously — the Second Viennese School and newer compositions; among several others, also the Artemis Quartet studied with members of this formation. Many regard this quartet as one of the great formations of the late 20th century. They definitely have their big merits — though I do have reservations about their performances of the Viennese classic period.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’42”; 1/4 = 33 (Maestoso) — 156 (Allegro)
For me, this Maestoso is too detached — there is almost a pause between the long notes and the following staccato. In the Allegro, the interpretation is very (maybe too) handsome, often forceful, and sometimes there is a tendency to “charge” notes — but technically their playing is excellent, no doubt, with excellent coordination, clearly excellent ensemble playing. The first violin has a tendency to dominate.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

16’38”; 3/8 = 31 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 86 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 31 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 31 (Tempo I)
The dynamics are exaggerated, too forceful (as a listener I don’t always want to be pointed at where exactly Beethoven wrote a crescendo or < >). There is often extra “charging” of notes (even though they always cultivate a nice, full sound), and the vibrato and the portamenti are at the limit, to say the least. To me, this interpretation lacks serenity, and the sotto voce in the Tempo I section isn’t (at least in the first violin). Tempo relations: the transition from the Adagio molto espressivo to the Tempo I is done conclusively, with 3/8 at the pace of the preceding 1/4 — plus, the Tempo I is exactly at the pace of the initial Adagio.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

6’52” (repetition #2 omitted); 1/4 = 180 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 167 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 170 (Presto)
Scherzando? This feels too serious to me (often handsome, without humor), and their “overenhanced” dynamics are not helpful at all. It feels like rubbing the listener’s nose in Beethoven’s dynamic notation (we don’t need or want to hear a lesson in dynamic notation!), and the articulation is often on the heavy side — should be lighter for a vivace! Some purists would call the omission of the second repetition a crime!

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’55”; 1/2 = 115 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 40 (Allegro con moto)
Too forceful, though technically very good; the Andante con moto is too slow, maybe just Andante, played in 1/8.

Recommendation: Technically OK, but the interpretation falls way behind many others.
Rating: 3.2 (4 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Leipziger Streichquartett (2001)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Leipziger Streichquartett, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 127 & 132

Leipziger Streichquartett

Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 307 0854-2 (stereo); ℗ / © 2002
Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Leipziger Streichquartett, UPC-A barcode
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On the Artists

Recorded in 2001, with Andreas Seidel, Tilman Büning, Ivo Bauer, and Matthias Moosdorf. This ensemble was formed in 1988, as “Neues Leipziger Streichquartett”, in 1995 they changed their name into the current one. In 2008 (after the recordings discussed here), Andreas Seidel (first violin) was replaced by Stefan Arzberger. They studied with the Amadeus Quartet, as well as with Walter Levin (LaSalle Quartet). This formation covers an extremely wide and rich repertoire, up to contemporary music, and they are getting excellent reviews, not just in Germany.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’01”; 1/4 = 41 (Maestoso) — 162 (Allegro)
The Maestoso is relatively fast (compared to most others), and also the Allegro feels fast, sometimes slightly superficial and not very transparent, the first violin tends to dominate. I sometimes miss the calm serenity that also could be found in this movement.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

15’02”; 3/8 = 29 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 98 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 38 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 34 (Tempo I)
In the Adagio they have a certain tendency to “charge” notes (also in the Coda). The Andante con moto is on the border of being a bit “sporty”. Very good and conclusive: the transition from the Adagio molto espressivo to the Tempo I: where they perform 3/8 at the pace of the preceding 1/4 (though this is substantially faster than the initial 12/8 time).

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’05”; 1/4 = 186 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 130 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 168 (Presto)
Well played and articulated, also the phrasing is OK — but this interpretation is poor in agogics: there is no time for a ritenuto or a little ritardando, there is no “play” in the tempo. The Allegro inserts are too slow, causing a disruption in the flow (maybe that’s intended, but it doesn’t make sense to me). Also, the first violin is unnecessarily dominant, too strong. On the positive side: they limit the use & the strength of vibrato.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

7’15”; 1/2 = 110 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 42 (Allegro con moto)
Good, well articulated, balanced (despite the slight dominance of the first violin) — could have more small scale phrasing. The Allegro con moto is played as 6/8 (2 x 3/8), but feels like Andante.

Recommendation: Good, but not top
Rating: 4.0 (4 / 4 / 4 / 4)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1984)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 - 135, Melos Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: Die späten Streichquartette, opp.127, 130-133, 135

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

DG 415 676-1 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ 1986
Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 - 135, Melos Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1984, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, and Peter Buck: in their DGG series with all Beethoven string quartets, the late quartets were released in 1986; for additional information see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’58”; 1/4 = 34 (Maestoso) — 150 (Allegro)
Good, dramatic, emotional! The p could sometimes be more p, and the first violin is somewhat dominating, unnecessarily.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

15’48”; 3/8 = 33 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 88 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 30 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 32 (Tempo I)
Unfortunately, the vibrato (especially in the first violin) is way too strong (meant to be expressive, obviously); the dynamics are more natural (though certainly very expressive, as always with this ensemble) than with the Alban Berg Quartett. The Andante con moto is good, even though some articulation details are a little exaggerated. They focus on the big flow, the big phrases. It’s very good in general, apart from the excessive vibrato and portamenti. Tempo relations: the transition from the Adagio molto espressivo to the Tempo I is done conclusively, with 3/8 at about the pace of the preceding 1/4 — plus, the Tempo I is at least close to the pace of the initial Adagio.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’32”; 1/4 = 174 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 143 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 148 (Presto)
The Scherzando vivace is dramatic, emotional, with good dynamics, the tempi are harmonic, and also the Allegro inserts (slightly slower) harmoniously fit well into the movement. The Presto is the slowest in this comparison, but OK — one can just about hear it as very fast 3/4, and even though it is the slowest version, it is never clumsy.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’31”; 1/2 = 120 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 41 (Allegro con moto)
Excellent, dramatic, emotional — a true Finale, with tension & drive, constantly moving (pulling) towards the conclusion. There are a few rushed ornaments in the first part; in the Allegro con moto, the tempo is at the lower limit, but still OK, feeling like 6/8.

Recommendation: Yes
Rating: 4.2 (4 / 4 / 4 / 5)

Takács Quartet (2004)

Beethoven: string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Takács Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: The Late String Quartets (opp. 95, 127, 130 – 133, 135)

Takács Quartet

Decca 470 849-2 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 2004
Beethoven: string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Takács Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2004, with Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, Roger Tapping, and András Fejér — for general comments see op.95.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’46”; 1/4 = 28 (Maestoso) — 165 (Allegro)
Excellent! Very detailed in articulation and phrasing, there is nothing superficial, even though the tempo is relatively fast. There’s the “big picture” — and a “heavenly” Coda, even though their playing is not overly sentimental!

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

14’31”; 3/8 = 36 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 106 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 35 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 36 (Tempo I)
In the Adagio sections, the vibrato is often a bit strong, sometimes even synchronous; the Andante con moto has a good tempo — really 4/4, light and dynamic in the articulation. The Adagio molto espressivo is not really heard alla breve (but that would be hard to combine with the molto espressivo). Tempo relations: the transition from the Adagio molto espressivo to the Tempo I is done conclusively, with 3/8 at the pace of the preceding 1/4 — plus, the Tempo I is exactly at the pace of the initial Adagio. Would be top with less vibrato!

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

7’35”; 1/4 = 200 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 182 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 165 (Presto)
Very virtuoso, alert, with a very wide dynamic range — excellent. Interesting: the Allegro inserts are slower than the Scherzando vivace, but feel faster — probably because they are heard as 4/8 time; in any case, these inserts absolutely make sense to me, in this interpretation!

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’31”; 1/2 = 110 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 47 (Allegro con moto)
Excellent in general, transparent, partnership, very well balanced, with the first violin often taking itself back behind the other voices, good agogics, phrasing, articulation, excellent tempo overall. The main (minor) criticism I have is about their tendency to “charge” longer notes (resulting in “belly notes”, < >).

Recommendation: Yes
Rating: 4.8 (5 / 4 / 5 / 5)

Artemis Quartet (2010)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 127, Artemis Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/1, 127

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 628659 0 6 (stereo); ℗ / © 2010
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 127, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2010, with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’41”; 1/4 = 33 (Maestoso) — 150 (Allegro)
A sonorously sounding interpretation — very nice, transparent, very good balance, no dominating voice, and a clear concept, an interpretation with evolution, with lively agogics. I like their quiet, serene ending / Coda!

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

14’51”; 3/8 = 34 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 90 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 42 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 32 (Tempo I)
I like their discreet / sometimes selective use of vibrato; very well balanced, transparent, showing the polyphony, the dynamics are natural (no “teaching over-enhancement” like with the Alban Berg Quartet!). The Andante con moto is very subtle, delicate, yet very rhythmic, almost dancing, never dropping the tension! I also like their play with colors & moods in the Adagio molto espressivo and the subsequent Tempo I, their brilliant play with agogics. The Coda (last 9 bars, after the general break) is like a heavenly voice from another world!

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

8’08”; 1/4 = 180 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 158 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 180 (Presto)
Excellent: transparent, light, precise in articulation, agogics and phrasing. Very good also their little ritenuti, emphasizing “focal” notes, or indicating breakpoints (ruptures / intersections) in the composition. The internal structure of the movement is also shown through subtle tempo differentiations. Maybe a bit “intellectual” — but still really excellent and not going into extremes!

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’39”; 1/2 = 118 (alla breve) — 3/8 = 46 (Allegro con moto)
As with the previous movements: excellent, transparent, balanced, considerate agogics, with their ritenuti, indicating “break points” and transitions in the composition, colorful, with detailed articulation.

Recommendation: Yes!
Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Hagen Quartett (2004)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Hagen Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: Streichquartette opp. 127 & 132

Hagen Quartett

DG 00289 477 5705 (stereo); ℗ / © 2005
Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Hagen Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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On the Artists

Recorded in 2004, with Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, and Clemens Hagen. The Hagen Quartett includes siblings of the Hagen family, located in Salzburg, Austria. Since they were founded in 1981, Annette Bik has stepped in for Angelika Hagen, and in 1987 she was followed by Rainer Schmidt. The Hagen Quartet may not be as busy and famous as some of the contenders in this comparison, but they are regularly getting excellent reviews, confirming their position as one of the first quartets at least in Europe. My own findings are absolutely in line with this.

Notes on the Movements

1. Maestoso (2/4) — Allegro (3/4)

6’13”; 1/4 = 45 (Maestoso) — 170 (Allegro)
They play the fastest Maestoso — but the tempo (if there is one in these few bars!) makes perfect sense to me. Also the Allegro is fast, but very well played; transparent, with excellent coordination, showing the big phrases. The first violin has a slight tendency to dominate, but not such that it would hurt the overall impression.

2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) — Andante con moto (4/4) — Adagio molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2) — Tempo I

13’54”; 3/8 = 34 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 94 (Andante con moto) — 1/4 = 53 (Adagio molto espr.) — 3/8 = 34 (Tempo I)
I like that whispered pp at the beginning! They play the Adagio ma non troppo (ma molto espressivo) really ma non troppo — light, and really 12/8, but without giving up expression & emotion. Very light and elegant (almost swinging / dancing!) in the Andante con moto — very nice.

Then, in the Adagio molto espressivo, this is the only ensemble (in this selection) that really plays alla breve. At first, it feels “on the fast side”, but overall it definitively is conclusive — especially when they are able to keep the pace of the eighths in the transition to 12/8 time in the Tempo I. That Tempo I is exactly the tempo of the initial Adagio: excellent! They keep the vibrato at a low level — often there is no vibrato at all.

3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) — Tempo I (3/4)

7’44”; 1/4 = 195 (Scherzando vivace) / 1/4 = 149 (Allegro) — 3/4 = 189 (Presto)
Very good! Emotional, harmonious, excellent in transparency, balance, phrasing, dynamics, agogics (especially in the Presto, with its ritenuti!). The Presto is emotional, lively, joking, never clumsy, and less of a country dance in the section with the sforzati, compared to other interpretations. Less “intellectual” than the interpretation by the Artemis Quartet.

4. Finale (alla breve, 2/2 ) — Allegro con moto (6/8)

6’00”; 1/2 = 124 — 3/8 = 60 (Allegro con moto)
Masterful! Most virtuosic, full of “speaking agogics”, both small and large scale, phrasing, detailed and accurate articulation. Even more colorful than with the Artemis Quartet. It exhibits Beethoven’s almost grotesque, dissonant passages in this piece. In some places one can almost hear a hurdy gurdy playing! The Allegro con moto is equally amazing : truly Allegro and 6/8, adjusted for the melody, not the accompaniment. The sixteenth triplets are really just that, not melodic — very fast, but always controlled! Should extend the scale above 5 points…

Recommendation: YES!
Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Addendum:

I’m using pocket scores to follow this music while listening. The listing shows the volumes for all of Beethoven’s string quartets:

  1. op.18/1-6 (Kalmus pocket score No.759) —Find pocket score volume I on amazon.com—
  2. op.59/1-3 (Kalmus pocket score No.760) —Find pocket score volume II on amazon.com—
  3. opp.74, 95, 127, 130 (Kalmus pocket score No.761) —Find pocket score volume III on amazon.com—
  4. opp.131, 132, 133, 135 (Kalmus pocket score No.762) —Find pocket score volume IV on amazon.com—

 

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