Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C♯ minor, op.131

Media Review / Comparison


2012-12-12 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-01-05 — Minor revision in rating (Artemis)
2013-08-07 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-07 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-10 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction / The Recordings

Here’s another note on the recordings of the string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) in my music collection, about the quartet in C♯ minor, op.131 — 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

With the String Quartet in C♯ minor, op.131, Beethoven abandons all classical form conventions and traditions: there are no sonata movements, none of the other traditional forms (Rondo, variation, etc.), nor one of the traditional movement setups (such as fast — slow — ScherzoFinale); instead, Beethoven writes one long stream of music, formally split into 7 numbered sections, but to be played without interruption — and even some of these sections are split into subsections with often vastly different character.

There is no big, bracketing theme holding the composition together — merely a relationship in the tonality: it’s just a long, multi-faceted musical tale (without words or a “program”, though), demanding for the artists — perhaps also for the listener? There are (to me, at least) moments / sections (movements #2 and in particular #7) where this quartet anticipates the musical language of the Great Fugue in B♭ major, op.133 — but apart from the absence of familiar form schemes, I don’t think the op.131 is an insurmountable challenge for the listener. The quartet features the following “movements” (numbered sections):

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.1, score sampleThis movement is much more difficult than it seems to be at a first glance! Sure, the problem is not technical (such as rapid passages etc.), but has to do with the tempo: it’s a slow, polyphonic fugato movement, and the danger is that the listener loses track of the overall structure, if not even of the primary and secondary fugato themes.

It helps if the volume is carefully balanced / adjusted to highlight the fugato themes, transparency is definitely important. 30 – 60 years ago, molto espressivo was apparently automatically translated into “must use lots of vibrato“, and an excess of vibrato also led ensembles to play even slower. However, the movement is alla breve i.e., to be played in 2/2 measures! In addition, the annotation also contains ma non troppo — i.e., it should not be too calm. Together, this (in my opinion) indicates a faster tempo than used by most artists — but finding the tempo balance here (fast enough / not too slow, but without creating unrest) is not easy!

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.2, score sampleA scherzo movement — subtle, yet tricky / demanding on rhythmic coordination!

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.3, score sampleSuch a short movement: just 5 1/2 bars of Allegro moderato, and the same number of bars in the Adagio part (of which 1.5 bars are a cadenza for the first violin) — yet not without “issues”! All movements in this quartet are played attacca, i.e., without break — yet, Beethoven labeled these few bars as a separate movement (while the following movement — though longer — uses at least 7 different tempo annotations): clearly, these 11 bars (the notes shown above are the whole movement) are meant to serve as a transition between the preceding Allegro molto vivace and the following, long fourth movement.

As such, it should prepare the listener for the music that follows — e.g., by building up expectation, tension, etc.; losing the tension here in my opinion is a mistake.

A Missing Note?

One interesting point is usually not noticed by the listener: most artists play one additional note! In bar #4, the second violin plays d’- e’ – f’# – a# — and this is followed by a rest in bar #5: most ensembles fill in a b (quarter note) to “finish the figure”, probably thinking “Ah, clearly, Beethoven just forgot this note”. But is this really true? OK, Beethoven was often sloppy in his notation, and his handwriting is terrible to decipher — but would he forget the final note in such a simple phrase?

Maybe the engraver made a mistake, given that the phrase just happens to cross a line border at this point (this may or may not have been the case in the original edition — with the voices it is unlikely to be the case)? It’s a fact that the first edition (Schott, voices and score) and the first London edition did not have the additional note; it apparently got introduced in an edition by Heckel and was commonly adopted in the late 19th century. I have an old Eulenburg edition (1895 / 1911) that has the extra note in parentheses, my newer Kalmus score (1968, see above) returns to the text of the first edition.

Does it Matter?

What’s all the fuss about one single note? Well, as long as you just listen to interpretations that add the extra b, you don’t even notice anything special — the music is exactly what is commonly expected, the extra note is a “natural fit”. If you get used to this, you will expect the extra b to be there, and then, when listening to one of the three recordings that use the text from the first edition (LaSalle Quartet, Alban Berg Quartet, and the Hagen Quartett) you will at first “fall into a hole” — and think the musicians forgot something, or that there was some mishap in the performance.

On a second thought, though: wasn’t Beethoven often going for the unexpected / unusual? If you look at this “constructively”, you will realize that the “missing note” creates a general break, and this gap then forms a turning point in the first part of this small movement, from where on tension starts building up across the cadenza, towards the end of that section!

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

This movement appears very fragmented into at least 7 segments, offering more more variation breadth in itself than most other quartet compositions — not just by Beethoven, but by any composer.

Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile

The first segment is annotated Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile and is in 2/4 measures — and it ends in demisemiquavers, i.e., with very short, rapid notes:Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice

Più Mosso

The following segment is in 4/4 measures and annotated Più mosso — this can only make sense if the first part is counted in quavers (4/8).
Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, Più mosso

Andante moderato e lusinghiero (lusinghiero

In the score, the Andante moderato e lusinghiero (lusinghiero = flattering) starts with a general break (quarter rest):
Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, Andante moderato e lusinghiero

Adagio

The Busch Quartet skips the break and play attacca instead; other ensembles prolong the break, making it sound like the intersection between two separate movements — not sure this is a good idea, given that even the intersections between the 7 numbered movements are written as to be played without break, even though only at the end of the fifth movement there is an explicit attacca. Large parts of this section are (roughly) written as canon in unison between cello & viola, and between the two violins.Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, AdagioKeeping the above section Adagio (i.e., calm) while not “dropping the flow / movement” appears to be challenging to some ensembles.

A Short Allegretto Insert

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, AllegrettoThis short Allegretto section is somewhat of a mystery: it’s an Allegretto in 2/4 measures, but there isn’t really any rhythm to it, the listener doesn’t really get a “tempo feeling”. Some ensembles seem a bit clueless as to how to play this: for sure, 1/4 = 46 can’t have been the composer’s intent (that’s what the Busch Quartet plays — even though they still make this an impressive, compelling interpretation), the Artemis Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, the Takács Quartet, and Brooklyn Rider play this (about) twice as fast, which feels more like Allegretto, the others are somewhere in-between.

Adagio ma non troppo e semplice

The Adagio ma non troppo implies “not too calm” (note that the counting unit is 3/4), and semplice means that the movement should not be overloaded with expression, which is underlined with the sotto voce annotation for the first part.

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice

One difficulty in this section is to keep / maintain the musical flow in the second part, despite the composed disruptions with general breaks followed by abrupt sforzato figures in the cello: the section sounds easy at first, but is rather tricky for the artists! The last 11 bars of this section are a (composed, implicit) cadenza, mostly in quaver trioles, starting again with sotto voce annotation; there is no indication in the score that this is to be played fully ad libitum, so presumably the tempo should not be slowed down dramatically, as with some ensembles.

Allegretto

The last section (Allegretto) is in 2/4 notation, but can’t really be played as Allegretto in quarter notes, given the hemidemisemiquavers in the cello accompaniment, and in the final cadenza in the first violin (explicitly marked in tempo!). This last section is a microcosm of diverse temperaments in its own, with its two accelerating sections (see above, there is a diminuendo e ritardando after the sempre più allegro, but the note values continue to shorten up to a chain of trills, so the listener experiences just acceleration. This is clearly not a concluding section, but one that leads into the following movement in the quartet.Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.4, score sample, Allegretto II

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.5, score sample, Presto Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.5, score sample, Molto poco adagioA fast Scherzo-type movement, requiring excellent coordination and precision, as well as careful articulation — otherwise the fast staccato passages end up as pure crackling noise. What is Molto poco adagio? Most ensembles read this as “very little slower” — Beethoven’s intent is not quite clear here. On little detail about this: not all ensembles are accurate in how they play the quaver-quarter figure (see the second excerpt above), Brooklyn Rider almost go as far as inverting the note values.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.6, score sampleRemember that Adagio means calm, not slow. The quasi un poco andante to me means that there should be at least some movement forward, i.e., the movement should not be entirely static.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

Beethoven, string quartet op.131, mvt.7, score sampleIn several ways, this movement talks the same “language” as the Great Fugue in B, op.133, e.g., in the iambic, punctuated rhythms, in the harmonic language — even though this piece is not written as a fugue.

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 the table for a full size view):Beethoven, string quartet op.131, comparison, M.M. table

My Comments on the Individual Recordings

The order of the interpretations below is not chronological (neither by recording / publishing date nor by purchase date), but follows my personal, subjective rating, my preferred recording shown last. The fractional ratings in the fourth movement are the result (average) of individual ratings for the seven segments in that movement.


Quartetto Italiano (1969)

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 1969, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

8’52”; 1/2 = 28
The sound is rather strange, overall: as if they played con sordino, but forte? It’s all rather dense, not transparent, not structured, very slow, the listener loses the feeling for the overall structure & phrasing, the melodies / theme are overstretched, run “out of sight”.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’05”; 3/8 = 144
Rather soft articulation, the sforzati could be stronger, more percussive. the sound is rather dense (limiting transparency), and there are some rushed passages.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’57”; 1/4 = 95 (Allegro moderato) — 27 (Adagio)
Rhythmically sloppy, also in the articulation.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

14’38”; 1/4 = 44 (Andante) — 127 (Più mosso) — 61 (Andante) — 1/8 = 92 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 56 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 35 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 49 (Allegretto)
Tempo instabilities and rhythmic inaccuracies in the initial Andante; in the Più mosso, the accompaniment is not always accurate, the third section (Andante) suffers from bulge notes; in section #4 (Adagio), the musical flow is OK, but the articulation and the pizzicati are not played very carefully. The Allegretto is rather slow — Andante at best.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’35”; 1/2 = 229
OK, though the articulation is sometimes slightly inaccurate. There are some tempo instabilities (cutting artifacts?).

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’26”; 1/4 = 35
This is much too slow (they ignore the quasi un poco andante), static.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’49”; 1/2 = 128
The articulation is rough, sometimes superficial, the intonation marginal at times, and there are some tempo instabilities, as found elsewhere in this series, with this ensemble.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.6 (2 / 3 / 2 / 2.9 / 3 / 3 / 2)

Endellion String Quartet (2005)

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 2007, with Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman — for general remarks see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’55”; 1/2 = 35
I don’t think keeping all voices at equal volume is a good solution here, as this affects the transparency / polyphony. On the bright(er) side, they limit the use of vibrato.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’57”; 3/8 = 148
To me, this lacks contours, the dynamics are inaccurate and often too flat / equal.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’46”; 1/4 = 92 (Allegro moderato) — 43 (Adagio)
Lacks tension; the Adagio isn’t!

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’09”; 1/4 = 55 (Andante) — 148 (Più mosso) — 73 (Andante) — 1/8 = 87 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 74 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 40 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 49 (Allegretto)
The initial Andante is (too) fast — rather an Allegretto: there is unrest (untypical of an Andante), and there is a tendency for the artists to start early after rests — faster is not better! In the Più mosso, the articulation in the staccati / accompaniment is rough, close to careless — too fast as well? For me, section 4 (Adagio) lacks atmosphere, and in the last two sections, the articulation is inaccurate, with some gross mishaps, such as extra strings being touched, etc.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’03”; 1/2 = 256
Very fast (has lots of drive!) — but too fast for this ensemble, causing some (moderate) coordination issues, a loss in transparency and careful articulation (often rough / coarse), and occasional, rushed passages.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’59”; 1/4 = 42

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

7’17”; 1/2 = 120
For my taste, the reverberation is at the upper limit here. In this movement, the articulation is sometimes rather rough; also, I’m missing transparency and dynamic differentiation in some parts, and in the piano sections, the interpretation is very — probably too — lyrical, relaxed, broad, and does not really feel like an Allegro.

Recommendation: No – can’t really compete with the top class recordings
Rating: 2.8 (3 / 3 / 3 / 2.6 / 2 / 3 / 3)

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. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’58”; 1/2 = 35
Rather coarse, lots of vibrato, the outer voices — especially the first violin — are too strong & dominating.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’05”; 3/8 = 144
Sometimes a bit harsh, the articulation is not always careful, occasionally even slightly superficial, limited focus on phrasing, and the first violin tends to be too strong & dominating.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’56”; 1/4 = 82 (Allegro moderato) — 32 (Adagio)
Static, stiff, rough.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

14’17”; 1/4 = 48 (Andante) — 133 (Più mosso) — 74 (Andante) — 1/8 = 82 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 65 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 33 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 41 (Allegretto)
In the initial Andante, the first violin is dominating too much: this is polyphonic music, so the voices should play in balanced partnership. There is also too much vibrato, and I also sense some inappropriate unrest in this section. Sections 3 (Andante) and 4 (Adagio) to me are coarse, rough, too loud. The first Allegretto (section 5) isn’t — I don’t see what they see as the function of this section. In the final Allegretto, the tempo is at the lower limit, this rather feels like a (clumsy) Andante.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’27”; 1/2 = 237
Often harsh, sometimes loses the drive. The piacevole is interpreted as slower (not ideal, I think).

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’04”; 1/4 = 41
The strong vibrato affects the (perceived) intonation purity, especially in the first violin.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’30”; 1/2 = 135
The intonation is often marginal, the articulation rough; articulation, rhythm and coordination are sometimes inaccurate, even superficial, the first violin dominates too much — and there is too much vibrato.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 2.9 / 3 / 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. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’13”; 1/2 = 39
At least the beginning sounds as if it was played con sordino (see the Quartetto Italiano above!), and they use a very strong vibrato that appears to affect the (perception of the) intonation. Also, they tend to play “notes with delayed bulge” (swelling almost up to the end of a note, with an often abrupt ending, as if music was played backwards), which to me kills the phrasing. Also, to me, this interpretation is often too loud.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’45”; 3/8 = 160
The articulation is too soft, there is too much vibrato, and they tend to play bulge notes (< >).

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’44”; 1/4 = 106 (Allegro moderato) — 45 (Adagio)
The strong vibrato again affects the (perceived) intonation.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’21”; 1/4 = 52 (Andante) — 138 (Più mosso) — 72 (Andante) — 1/8 = 91 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 92 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 35 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 56 (Allegretto)
The movement starts too soft, with fuzzy articulation, with much too much vibrato, as a listener, I don’t sense any emotions in this (they should let the music speak, not their vibrato); the Più mosso runs like a clockwork (emotionless to me) — some agogics would help! The following Andante sounds overblown to me, with bulge notes, and the Adagio is again too mechanical, but I like their tempo in the Allegretto; the remaining sections are good per se, though again with too much vibrato.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

4’33”; 1/2 = 269
Way too fast for expression and detail (both for the players as for the listener): this is a purely olympic exercise (but impressive as such!) — perhaps acceptable as a Scherzo movement.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’53”; 1/4 = 44
Too much focus on short motifs, the sforzati are too strong and explicit — and there is too much vibrato. To me, this movement falls apart, lacks overall phrasing & structure in this interpretation.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’17”; 1/2 = 136
Good balance, technically very good, but lacking expression, little )if any) agogics, too much vibrato; often persistent pushing forward (if not rushing) in the dramatic parts, while the p/pp sections aspects to me are too lyrical..

Recommendation: No
Rating: 3.1 (2 / 3 / 3 / 3.4 / 4 / 3 / 3)

LaSalle Quartet (1977)

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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spacerRecorded in 1977, with Walter Levin, Henry W. Meyer, Peter Kamnitzer, Jack Kirstein — for general comments see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’53”; 1/2 = 35
The vibrato unfortunately is as strong as with the Takács Quartet (vibrato = espressivo??), their articulation is often a bit stiff & heavy, and the tend to use “bulge notes” (< >).

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’59”; 3/8 = 150
The phrasing is a bit short-winded, occasionally somewhat stiff — though with good contrasts & dynamics.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’45”; 1/4 = 87 (Allegro moderato) — 40 (Adagio)
Somewhat stiff (almost “military”); they are one of three ensembles that do not play the extra note in bar #5 (see above).

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’32”; 1/4 = 51 (Andante) — 138 (Più mosso) — 73 (Andante) — 1/8 = 101 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 70 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 31 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 55 (Allegretto)
Too much vibrato, especially in the Andante and Adagio sections; in these second Andante, the vibrato is even affecting the (perceived) intonation. In the Più mosso, the accompaniment is rather rough, and in the second Adagio, the second part with the cadenzas is much slower, the cadenzas rather schematic, not really like cadenzas (OK, they are not labeled as such!).

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

6’04”; 1/2 = 205
Technically very good, with excellent coordination, clean; the staccati in the accompaniment are rather dry, lacking sound; very determinate, if not obstinate — should maybe be more playful?

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’56”; 1/4 = 43
The heavy vibrato is affecting the intonation and distracts from the melody; static, stiff.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’39”; 1/2 = 130
Sometimes inaccurate in the dynamics (swelling notes where Beethoven writes a decrescendo), though technically very good, with accurate articulation, expressive, dramatic.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 3.1 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 4)

Alban Berg Quartett (1984)

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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spacerRecorded in 1984, with Günther Pichler, Gerhard Schulz, Thomas Kakuska, Valentin Erben — for general comments see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’51”; 1/2 = 36
Rather heavy, too many accents (also where there’s nothing in the score), mostly rather uniform (lacking overall phrasing), the vibrato is rather strong, their sforzati are often slightly delayed and rather clumsy.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’08”; 3/8 = 136
The articulation is somewhat soft, the sforzati could be stronger, more percussive.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’52”; 1/4 = 94 (Allegro moderato) — 33 (Adagio)
One of only three ensembles (LaSalle Quartet, Hagen Quartett) that do not play the extra note in bar #5 (see above).

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’24”; 1/4 = 53 (Andante) — 133 (Più mosso) — 83 (Andante) — 1/8 = 85 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 80 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 37 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 60 (Allegretto)
Technically very good, with clean intonation — unfortunately, with strong vibrato. The initial Andante is too scholastic / academic to me; the Più mosso is not pp, and the Adagio (segment #4) is never subtle or serene; the following Allegretto is not dolce, has bulge notes — as does the second Adagio segment, which also does not really start sotto voce, as written in the score. The cadenzas are played much slower, disrupting the flow / context. The final Allegretto is very (too) fast, feeling rushed in the cello accompaniment.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’36”; 1/2 = 220
Technically very good, the staccati are short, but still sounding, transparent overall. Here, their tendency towards “ex cathedra” dynamics are OK: it can be taken as sarcastic / humorous trait.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’34”; 1/4 = 54
Somewhat short-winded, not adagio, and too focused on short phrases.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’27”; 1/2 = 134
The first violin is too dominant, the articulation rigid, stiff; often loud, overall rather coarse and “ex cathedra”, and I also don’t like the (occasional) bulge notes.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 3.2 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3.1 / 4 / 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. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

7’59”; 1/2 = 31
There’s too much weight on the outer voices (this can probably also be attributed to the recording technique), otherwise the transparency would be OK; I like their limited use of vibrato!

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’12”; 3/8 = 134
Well balanced, though the transparency limited both by sometimes soft articulation, but mostly due to limitations in the recording technique.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’50”; 1/4 = 72 (Allegro moderato) — 38 (Adagio)
This is too slow — definitely not an Allegro moderato.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

15’05”; 1/4 = 44 (Andante) — 127 (Più mosso) — 63 (Andante) — 1/8 = 86 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 46 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 30 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 40 (Allegretto)
This movement is played directly attached to the previous one, ignoring the general break; similarly, the general break at the beginning of section #3 is ignored — in an effort to string things together. This doesn’t really hurt, even though it ignores the notation in the score. The first Andante is expressive (with some domination by the first violin). The Più mosso is played almost without vibrato.

The Allegretto is extremely slow, played very flat, without conveying “tempo feeling” — yet, this is still a very nice piece of music: in this interpretation, this is the culmination or the “turning point” of this movement. The last two sections are excellent, giving the “big phrase”, demonstrating very conscious structuring / phrasing.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’08”; 1/2 = 256
Here, the ensemble can’t compete with modern / current interpretations in terms of accuracy, precision and coordination — though, to be fair, this should probably be considered the equivalent of a live performance.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’30”; 1/4 = 34
This is much too slow (they ignore the quasi un poco andante), static.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’11”; 1/2 = 138
The interpretation has drive, is dramatic, expressive — certainly not nearly as polished as recent recordings, but technically played very well!

Recommendation: Some impressive moments, but can’t really compete any longer, overall.
Rating: 3.3 (3 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 4)

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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spacerRecorded in 1969, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’38”; 1/2 = 37
One of their better movements so far; good tempo (maybe with some slight unrest towards the end), well balanced, not overloaded.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’17”; 3/8 = 132
The intonation is sometimes marginal, the articulation rather soft, the vibrato rather strong.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’49”; 1/4 = 100 (Allegro moderato) — 35 (Adagio)
Another instance of the cellist moaning audibly! The f and the sforzati are too soft; the artists fail to build tension over this short movement.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

15’10”; 1/4 = 47 (Andante) — 129 (Più mosso) — 60 (Andante) — 1/8 = 70 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 78 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 34 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 49 (Allegretto)
The first Andante are rather soft and with plenty of vibrato; in the Più mosso, the melody is soft, while the accompaniment is very (too) dry. The break into the second Andante is longer than written in the score. Section 4 (Adagio) does not maintain / keep up the flow very well; on the other hand, they have a good tempo (not too slow) in the Allegretto. For me, the transition to the second Adagio is a bit “forced”, not entirely harmonic — and that Adagio is rather static. Too much vibrato again in the final section.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’09”; 1/2 = 244
Good in general — though, the voices are too equal / balanced: if melody and accompanying voices were more differentiated, the transparency would be better.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’44”; 1/4 = 48
Often using synchronous vibrato — not a good idea! Otherwise a good interpretation.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’56”; 1/2 = 118
The articulation is coarse, the intonation in the first violin not always accurate.

Recommendation: One of their better recordings, I think
Rating: 3.3 (4 / 2 / 3 / 3.3 / 4 / 4 / 3)

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, András Fejér — for general comments see op.95.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

7’59”; 1/2 = 31
The vibrato is way too strong & heavy — even makes reading the intonation hard sometimes, and it is distracting to the listener. To me, this interpretation also lacks structural transparency.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’57”; 3/8 = 148
Too much vibrato, to the point where the (perceived) intonation starts suffering; also, there is a tendency to play bulge notes / unnecessarily “charging” long notes.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’42”; 1/4 = 132 (Allegro moderato) — 47 (Adagio)
Both the Allegro moderato, as well as the Adagio parts are rather fast; too much vibrato, once again.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’27”; 1/4 = 52 (Andante) — 138 (Più mosso) — 72 (Andante) — 1/8 = 96 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 90 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 35 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 51 (Allegretto)
The first section is a bit overblown, and using too much vibrato, even on short notes. The vibrato is generally too strong in slow sections. Good tempo in the Allegretto and in the second Adagio — the latter is serene, surreal, picturing a dream, maybe? Positive: the sound of the viola!

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’02”; 1/2 = 238
Soft, sounding, but still light & short in the articulation, rhythmically accurate, transparent; sounding too nice, maybe? Should it be even more playful? And again, this wonderful viola sound in the f – ff sections preceding the pizzicato passages!

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’17”; 1/4 = 37
Very slow, too much vibrato.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’30”; 1/2 = 133
Not always quite accurate in rhythm and articulation, and I sense some tempo instabilities (cutting artifacts?); I also dislike their strong vibrato, and their tendency to use bulge notes (in this movement). On the bright side: I very much enjoy the sound of the viola in this movement!

Recommendation: Would be much better with far less vibrato
Rating: 3.3 (3 / 3 / 4 / 3.4 / 4 / 3 / 3)

Leipziger Streichquartett (1994)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.131 & 135, Leipziger Streichquartett, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 131 & 135

Leipziger Streichquartett

Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 307 0820-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1998
Beethoven, string quartets opp.131 & 135, Leipziger Streichquartett, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1994, with Andreas Seidel, Tilman Büning, Ivo Bauer, and Matthias Moosdorf — for general remarks on this ensemble see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

7’46”; 1/2 = 31
The vibrato is more moderate than with the Takács Quartet; sometimes they fall into the trap of paying too much attention to secondary voices: at such a slow tempo this makes it hard to follow the polyphony in this movement.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

3’01”; 3/8 = 146
Very well balanced, rich in colors, agogics & phrasing are very good!

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’48”; 1/4 = 100 (Allegro moderato) — 38 (Adagio)
For me, they fail to build tension in the first part (not playing the extra b might have helped!), the flow is sometimes disrupted.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

14’02”; 1/4 = 49 (Andante) — 133 (Più mosso) — 69 (Andante) — 1/8 = 84 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 74 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 37 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 52 (Allegretto)
A very good interpretation (though with the vibrato at the upper limit) — the first Adagio is definitely excellent in its serenity and clarity!

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’54”; 1/2 = 212
The opposite of the interpretation by the LaSalle Quartet: too much dominated by legato voices, the staccato in the accompaniment is almost reduced to “underlying noise”, is sometimes marginalized. Sometimes the interpretation loses or lacks drive.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’02”; 1/4 = 41
Too much vibrato in the first violin, too static.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’49”; 1/2 = 128
For my taste, the reverberation is at the upper limit (see the general remarks above), but not to the point where it really hurts. This interpretation features careful articulation (with good sound also in short staccato notes), good agogics, very clean intonation; expressive, dramatic and emotional also in the “lyrical” parts.

Recommendation: Overall, a good interpretation (to me, not always at the same high level, though).
Rating: 3.8 (4 / 4 / 3 / 4.6 / 3 / 3 / 5)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1985)

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 1985, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck — for general comments see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

6’12”; 1/2 = 39
To me, this is the “right” tempo, and probably the only interpretation in this comparison where one really can sense the alla breve. It’s also very emotional and expressive (though sometimes a bit on the loud side). Unfortunately, their vibrato is too strong and affects the listening experience.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’51”; 3/8 = 156
Very dramatic — the agogics are sometimes a bit extreme.

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’39”; 1/4 = 114 (Allegro moderato) — 48 (Adagio)
Expressive, emotional — unfortunately with rather strong / too much vibrato.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

12’47”; 1/4 = 53 (Andante) — 157 (Più mosso) — 86 (Andante) — 1/8 = 89 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 64 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 40 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 54 (Allegretto)
Too much vibrato, unfortunately; very expressive — maybe rather loud at times. The Più mosso is rather (too?) fast, like an Allegro. The Andante moderato e lusinghiero also is rather fast (not moderato!), and too expressive / dramatic for me, and also the Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice is on the fast side (a tad too much unrest and expressivity for the semplice annotation — or it it the excess vibrato that causes the impression unrest?) — but the two Allegretto sections are both excellent in tempo, expression and agogics.

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

4’59”; 1/2 = 244
Very good, expressive, emotional, impulsive, with drive — and one of only a few (if not the only one) where as a listener one really can sense the alla breve notation.

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’56”; 1/4 = 43
Emotional, expressive — but using too much vibrato.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’38”; 1/2 = 130
Also here, the reverberation (at the very beginning) is at the limit (for my taste, see above). the interpretation is dramatic, expressive, with expansive and accurate dynamics, though rhythmically sometimes slightly soft. Too bad they have such a strong vibrato.

Recommendation: One of the better interpretations on the market — very expressive and dramatic, though with a lot of vibrato.
Rating: 4.1 (4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 4)

Brooklyn Rider (2011)

Beethoven, string quartets op.131; Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider, CD coverLudwig van Beethoven: String Quartet Nr.14 op.131;
Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps; Christopher Tignor: Together Into This Unknowable Night

Brooklyn Rider, Christopher Tignor

In a Circle Records IRC005 (CD, stereo); © 2012
Beethoven, string quartets op.131; Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2011, with Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords, and Eric Jacobsen.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

Brooklyn Rider are a young string quartet, based in New York; they started recording around 2008 (their Web site does not mention a founding year, but their origins may go back to around 2003), and their focus is on unusual repertoire — they are working with various composers. This CD also includes a composition by Christopher Tignor and a composition (improvisation?) by the quartet itself.

Jumping Into Beethoven…

This is their first Beethoven recording, and for this they decided to — in their own words — start with the most difficult one of the Beethoven quartets. Brooklyn Rider obviously avoid anything that could be seen as conventional / standard / ordinary. Of course, no artists wants his/her performance to sound exactly like anybody else’s, so in principle, this attitude is legitimate; the question is how far one can and should go in this differentiation from others — and the justification (for the artist him/herself, or towards the auditorium), such as trying to

  • reproduce how a piece may have sounded / been played at the time of creation;
  • reproduce the purported idea / what the composer had in mind, irrespective of limitations of period instruments;
  • advance current performance standards with personal ideas / preferences etc., maybe just for find a personal match for the taste of a projected audience,
  • develop / succeed with a new / personal style, etc.

How do They Play?

In this Beethoven recording Brooklyn Rider chose several “options to individuality”:

Historically Informed?

  • they play essentially without vibrato (for me a very welcome move, given the excess of vibrato in some interpretations!) — this clearly is an attempt in historically informed playing (HIP)
  • they play with modern (french) bows, but holding them in baroque manner. For me, this is rather questionable — though, what matters is the end result (I have a slight suspicion that some of the inflexibility in their tone is caused by this). At the very least, this is a very personal interpretation of HIP…

Portamento?

They use frequent portamento / glissandi; in my personal opinion / view, the occasional portamento under the umbrella of HIP (such as used by the Quatuor Mosaïques, for example) is definitely legitimate, especially where it makes sense technically (e.g., large position shifts on string instruments), and it may occasionally approach the status of an ornament — however, I personally find that it should never become a dominant / prominent “feature” (because then I think a composer would have found ways to mark this in the score);

Portamento?

Last, their recording is somewhat special in some aspects: primarily, the recording location featured rather strong reverberation. To me, reverberation is OK, if not even desirable as a means to provide the impression if a real recording or concert location — but similar to the portamento, it should not turn into a dominant / prominent feature.

Organ recordings in big churches are a special case (as organs are typically built to fit the acoustics of a large hall, and organ compositions typically take this into account), but in this case, the reverberation is so strong that it starts negatively affecting the reception by the listener, e.g., by covering up general breaks, by mixing harmonies (as if a pianist was playing with the sustain pedal down at all times).

They claim the reverberation is all natural; in my opinion that does not count, as a) this is not a live performance — with an audience, some of that reverberation would have been dampened substantially, and b) more reverberation is not necessarily better — some locations are simply not suited as recording studio.

So, let’s see how they fare in this comparison (just my personal opinion, as always):

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

5’53”; 1/2 = 42
The very beginning of the quartet is a prime example for what I meant with my comment above about the use of portamento: the very first interval in the theme in every voice (and wherever the theme appears in this movement) is played with such a strong glissando, that I can only can see this as an attempt to provoke, to “make a statement” — because technically there is no reason whatsoever not to play a straight interval, and this added “feature” only distracts, does not add real value.

The tone appears rather inelastic, the first violin tends to dominate, though in general the transparency is good. Also, for me, there is too much focus on individual notes — I’d prefer more focus on longer phrases / phrasing in general. Tempo: they are the fastest ensemble in this movement, but basically not too fast — but to me this sounds / feels like 4/4 rather than alla breve, which sometimes makes this sound like an andante or an allegro moderato, rather than Adagio ma non troppo.

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’48”; 3/8 = 158
I like the drive in this interpretation. The reverberation itself is not conspicuous — but here, it affects the transparency. I think this should be compensated with more dynamic differentiation (e.g., by playing secondary voices more p).

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’40”; 1/4 = 118 (Allegro moderato) — 47 (Adagio)
Even though it takes some getting used to, the reverberation is acceptable / can make sense with this movement!

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’28”; 1/4 = 52 (Andante) — 142 (Più mosso) — 71 (Andante) — 1/8 = 97 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 84 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 39 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 48 (Allegretto)
The strong portamento in the initial theme is another of those instances where I feel that the artists just want to make a statement (about playing portamento, not about Beethoven, that is) — and I dislike that as much as I dislike when the Alban Berg Quartet rubs my nose in every single one of Beethoven’s dynamic annotations! Also, the initial Andante is way too bass-focused (must be the sound management), which (along with the reverberation) just distracts from the musical content.

The Più mosso on the other hand is very nice, played without vibrato. Throughout this movement, the artists appear take the reverberation into account — I mostly cannot object to the role of the acoustics here, except maybe in the first Andante. They have a good tempo in section 5 (Allegretto), and I like their cadenzas in the final section. Overall, I think they do an excellent job at keeping this diverging movement together!

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’09”; 1/2 = 234
Here, the reverberation is partially OK (or a matter of taste) — but there are instances where it completely covers / hides general breaks, which can’t possibly have been the composer’s intent; there are some nice details (e.g., in the middle voices) which may be overheard in other interpretations. Quite a few ensembles are inaccurate in the quaver-crotchet figures in the Molto poco adagio — Brooklyn Rider are the most extreme, in that they play these almost like crotchet-quaver pairs!

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’41”; 1/4 = 50
Positive: no vibrato, good articulation and intonation; negative: maybe a tad too fast, no longer calm, “too much andante“.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’32”; 1/2 = 140
This movement can also be found on YouTube. I think this is a prime example showing why an excess of reverberation is not an enhancement for the listener: it overplays / covers general breaks, such that the listener follows the reverberation instead of feeling the build-up of tension over such breaks. Apart from this, I also have the feeling that the artists have a tendency to “overplay” rests (by gradual shortening, and their enthusiasm leads to pushed, if not rushed passages — this may prevent a listener from sensing a natural rhythmic flow (one should keep in mind that this is an Allegro, not a Presto!). But they are definitely playing with drive and superb technical abilities!

Recommendation: Interesting, definitely — but has (potentially) irritating aspects, too: not recommended if you are expecting anything near a conventional interpretation!
Rating: 4.4 (4 / 4 / 5 / 4.7 / 5 / 4 / 4)

Artemis Quartet (2002)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2, 59/3, 131 & 132, Artemis Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/2, 59/3, 131, 132

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 607102 0 8 (2 CD, stereo); ℗ 2000-2003 / © 2010
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2, 59/3, 131 & 132, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2002, with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge — for general comments see op.127. This quartet is one of three in this series (along with op.59/1 and op.132, all with the early composition of the ensemble) where Natalia Prischepenko is not playing the first violin.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

7’43”; 1/2 = 32
The tempo is a little faster than with the Hagen Quartett, which helps “keeping the structure under control”: overall, excellent phrasing / structuring and articulation, albeit with a fair amount of vibrato

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’49”; 3/8 = 154
Long phrases, excellent dynamics & agogics, transparent, detailed articulation (without getting lost in details, though!).

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’48”; 1/4 = 96 (Allegro moderato) — 42 (Adagio)
Impeccable, as usual / expected.

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

12’51”; 1/4 = 53 (Andante) — 141 (Più mosso) — 77 (Andante) — 1/8 = 97 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 100 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 38 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 52 (Allegretto)
As usual with these artists: careful, excellent articulation, dynamics and agogics. Besides the excellent articulation, I particularly like the sound / instrument balance in the second Andante. Their first Allegretto (section #5) is the fastest in this comparison — maybe not as transcendental / serene as with the Hagen Quartett, but this absolutely makes sense, is a true Allegretto!

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’08”; 1/2 = 234
Technically near-perfect! The Tempo I is often taken a tad faster, at the limit of appearing rushed. Interesting: the accelerando on the sul ponticello section in the Coda!

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

1’55”; 1/4 = 44
Once more: excellent in tempo, agogics, phrasing / focus on melody, tension and expressivity (a little less vibrato would be nice, though!).

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’54”; 1/2 = 124
Excellent in the dynamic differentiation, the sound / voice balance, agogics, phrasing and articulation.

Recommendation: Yes – certainly one of the best recordings on the market!
Rating: 4.9 (4 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Hagen Quartett (1999)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/4 & 131, Hagen Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/4, 131

Hagen Quartett

DG / iTunes download (stereo, 256 Kbps); ℗ 1999
(no booklet)
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 1999, with Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, and Clemens Hagen — for general comments on the Hagen Quartett see op.127.

Notes on the Movements

1. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo (alla breve, 2/2)

8’18”; 1/2 = 29
Very slow — as slow as the Quartetto Italiano, but they retain the full clarity & transparency: side voices are consequently moved to pp, vibrato is essentially limited to the fugato theme, making it possible to follow the theme despite the slow tempo: very good!

2. Allegro molto vivace (6/8)

2’56”; 3/8 = 152
Fits their first movement: light, lucid, transparent, with excellent dynamics and percussive accents!

3. Allegro moderato — Adagio (4/4)

0’51”; 1/4 = 90 (Allegro moderato) — 34 (Adagio)
Excellent in tempo and phrasing, etc.; along with the LaSalle Quartet and the Alban Berg Quartet they do not play the extra note in bar #5 (see above).

4. Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (2/4) — Più mosso (4/4) — Andante moderato e lusinghiero (4/4) — Adagio (6/8) — Allegretto (2/4) — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice (9/4) — Allegretto (2/4)

13’53”; 1/4 = 45 (Andante) — 133 (Più mosso) — 61 (Andante) — 1/8 = 110 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 72 (Allegretto) — 3/4 = 35 (Adagio) — 1/4 = 48 (Allegretto)
The first section is really excellent — truly molto cantabile; the Più mosso starts whispered only : very nice! The second Andante stands out for its beautiful, finely tuned instrument sound (a minor objection might be the short acceleration in the middle that I don’t quite understand); section #5 (Allegretto) is transcendental (a “window to heaven”!) — and uses a moderate tempo only, the second Adagio starts whispered only (just like the Più mosso), very serene and calm; the cadenzas are played freely, but not with virtuoso ambitions. Overall, the best interpretation of this movement for me!

5. Presto — Molto poco adagio (alla breve, 2/2)

5’32”; 1/2 = 219
Excellent in articulation, phrasing, transparency, drive!

6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (3/4)

2’16”; 1/4 = 37
The tempo is at the lower limit (considering the quasi un poco andante), but somehow they manage to keep up the tension, the listener still feels some moving forward, as preparation for the last movement.

7. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

6’38”; 1/2 = 130
Very “sharp”, but maintaining sonority in short notes, extremely accurate in rhythm and dynamics, clear, transparent — simply excellent! I’m especially pleased with the sound of the viola!

Recommendation: Yes — an excellent recording, in my view with a bit more of a “human touch” than the Artemis Quartet.
Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 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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