Beethoven: String Quartet op.18/1


2011-10-23 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-07 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet and Hagen Quartett added
2013-08-04 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-05 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-07 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction

I just started two major projects – this is the first posting on the comparison of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, the other project compares Beethoven’s violin sonata recordings (see my blog entry “Beethoven, Sonata for Piano & Violin op. 12/1“). As with my other postings, here I do not pretend providing a comprehensive review — these just are the recordings which I happen to have in my collection, and some of that selection dates back to my early days of collecting music on LPs, some 30 – 40 years ago.

The Recordings

In this note I focus on my recordings of Beethoven’s (numerically) first string quartet, the String Quartet in F major, op.18/1. References to the CDs are given at the bottom of the respective section, in one of the related postings, 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 F major, op.18/1, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro con brio (3/4):
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/1, mvt.1, score sample
2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato (9/8)
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/1, mvt.2, score sample
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/1, mvt.3, score sample, Scherzo
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/1, mvt.3, score sample, Trio
4. Allegro (2/4)
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/1, mvt.4, score sample
Unlike with his orchestral works, Beethoven did not “retrofit” these quartets with metronome numbers — the above annotations are all we have as tempo indication.

Early Encounters with the Beethoven Quartets on Vinyl

A short note on my “personal chronology” with the recordings below. My first encounter with the Beethoven string quartets was around 1970, through the Melos Quartet (which a high school teacher strongly recommended to me). This was soon followed by the Amadeus Quartet. I was looking at alternative views pretty early in my music collector’s career. At that time I also quite liked the Quartetto Italiano (that I also heard in concerts), but it’s only recently that I purchased their complete recording (call this “pure nostalgia”!).

The Quartets on CD

After switching to CDs, my first recording was the Guarneri Quartet. I mostly bought this because I didn’t know their recordings yet from LPs (and despite the fact that the reviews on their recordings that I read back in the 70’s were not overwhelming!). Naturally, I soon was looking for a less “conventional” interpretation, hence I added the Emerson String Quartet (see below for comments!).

I recently re-added my former vinyl recordings: the Amadeus Quartet collection, and the Melos Quartet (in their second, newer recording, though), along with the Quartetto Italiano.

Historically Informed?

None  of this accounted for my growing interest for historically informed interpretations (which have gained substantial, gradually growing momentum over the past 40 years), and the associated change in collector focus. This isn’t quite as easy as it would seem:

  • there is a growing number of artists who are aware of historically informed playing and either actively promote that practice, or at least have been influenced by it, to a noticeable degree — however, the CD market is still largely dominated by famous, conventional artists & ensembles, let alone “historic” (not historically informed!!) recordings;
  • the “new” practice has predominantly been adopted by younger artists who either still have a small repertoire or haven’t been adopted / recognized by major recording labels.

With this, one can be feel lucky to find individual, recordings, maybe even media with a mix of composers, whereas “encyclopedic minds” such as myself would prefer collections of works (e.g., all of Beethoven’s string quartets, or at least all of the early, middle, or late quartets) over just picking some raisins here and there.

My latest additions illustrate these points. The Artemis Quartet just finished it’s recording of the complete Beethoven Quartets. Their interpretation seems to be under the influence of the newer practice—at best (see below). The Quatuor Mosaïques, however, is definitely offering historically informed interpretations, but has just done the early Beethoven quartets so far. I’m not sure whether they are even keen on doing the middle and late quartets, as their repertoire focuses on the late 18th century.

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.18/1, comparison, M.M. table

My Comments on the Individual Recordings

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


Amadeus Quartet (1961)

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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spacerThe Amadeus Quartet (1961, Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett) recorded all Beethoven string quartets (first published on LP); this quartet was recorded in 1961.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

The Amadeus Quartet was one of the dominating quartet in the second half of the 20th century, enjoying a very long career with the same artists; looking back, they definitely were regarded being one of the standards (if not even the standard for some people), at the time of this recording. Yet — I now was disappointed by their performance. Some of this may be due to the recording circumstances. But I can’t imagine DG not doing their best to make recordings of one of their star sound good. What strikes me is their (often) harsh, rough tone. I know and remember that their interpretation is pretty much dominated by the first violin. It doesn’t help if that player makes excess use of a strong vibrato.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

7’04” (exposition not repeated); 1/4 = 130
In this movement, the Amadeus Quartet (IMO) uses too much détaché, reinforcing the impression of a harsh articulation; for my taste, their sforzati are often not “percussive” enough, but rather like “belly notes”. On the bright(er) side, the interpretation is very uniform throughout the quartet (with the exception of the fact that the first violin dominates, see above). They are the only ones who don’t repeat the exposition in this movement.

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

8’34”; 3/8 = 40 (1/8 = 120)
This may be the recording — but the sound could (and should) be warmer, more homogeneous. The worst part of the interpretation is Norbert Brainin’s strong vibrato.

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’13”; 3/4 = 110
This movement is more or less OK, though in this and the first movement there is very little “talking” at the scale of small motifs. Too bad the two staccato quarter notes (crotchets) in the main motif is often sounding rushed (lacking rhythmic control or just careless?).

4. Allegro

5’48”; 1/4 = 140
This movement is played faster than by any of the other ensembles — and even though it is all extremely virtuoso and clean, it often sounds restless, rushed, if not careless in the rapid passages, and there is no time for the mind to rest even a small fraction of a second, e.g., between first and the second theme: it is hard for the listener to follow the structure of the movement. I personally also think that the character of this movement should be more playful, maybe joking — we are not at the Olympics here!

Recommendation: Not a bad quartet — but I expect more (and more interpretation) from this music! And the first violin can make this a tiring experience.
Rating: 2.2 (2 / 2 / 2 / 3)

Emerson String Quartet (1996)

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
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spacerThe Emerson String Quartet (1996, Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel) recorded all Beethoven string quartets in the mid-90’s; op.18/1 was recorded 1996.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

Judging from this particular recording — but also confirmed from other CDs — I can simply say: buying this set of CDs was a mistake, no less than that. I can summarize my findings as follows:

  • Visually, these guys portray themselves as the “smart, cool, modern, elegant quartet”. In their interpretation, the prime feature is sheer perfection. However, this is not a positive feature here: they push perfection to a point where one might just as well read the score with software such as “Sibelius” and then play it using a standard MIDI interface. Two examples supporting this: as a quartet they area apparently proud of having recorded the Mendelssohn octet — alone (i.e., by cloning themselves; proud? why otherwise would they have included the two “half octet tracks” for the Scherzo on their CD?). The result can’t really be very exciting, despite its perfection: doesn’t this octet live from the fact that two different quartets & sets of characters must merge into an ensemble?

How do They Play?

  • My listening experience — also in this Beethoven quartet — can be summarized in a single word: boredom. Just another example from their Mendelssohn collection: if one compares their op.13 (a minor) with the recording by the young American Excelsa Quartet which really is just at the early start of their career: how much more live, liveliness and emotion is in their recording — simply amazing, and congratulations to the four young ladies!
  • Their sound is dominated by the first violin — and particularly that voice is played with way too much vibrato — both too strong (too much amplitude) and too fast / nervous, and omnipresent. May well be that part of my objection comes from the fact that my ears are adapting to historically (more) informed playing these days?
  • Besides their perfection, they also tend to play very fast — which also isn’t necessarily a positive feature, particularly where their focus on speed and perfection makes it impossible to play and hear any detailed phrasing etc.

Notes on the Movements

I think that pretty much says it all for this interpretation of op.18/1 – let me still add a couple things & numbers about the individual movements:

1. Allegro con brio

8’37”; 1/4 = 160
See above (clearly the speed winner in this movement!)

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

8’49”; 3/8 = 37 (1/8 = 111)
See again above; not too fast this time, diction / articulation OK — but (IMHO) lacking emotion and expression — the latter cannot be evoked simply by frequently using “belly note” (as my music teachers used to call it, i.e., “swollen notes”), which I actually rather consider a bad habit, and affettuoso is not just a matter of excessive vibrato!

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’04”; 3/4 = 114
Probably too fast for playing out much detail — one feels out of breath after this interpretation — where’s the humor of a real scherzo?

4. Allegro

6’19”; 1/4 = 124
Not the fastest in this selection — nevertheless, many of the rapid passages appear rushed, just run through, often even careless.

Recommendation: No, thanks!
Rating: 2.2 (3 / 2 / 2 / 2)

Guarneri String Quartet (1995)

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Guarneri String Quartet (1995), CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets op.18

Guarneri String Quartet

Philips 434 115-2 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 1995
Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Guarneri String Quartet (1995), UPC-A barcode
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spacerThe Guarneri String Quartet (1995, Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer) recorded the Beethoven string quartets twice — this is the second (late) recording of op.18/1, from 1995.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

This is another big quartet of the second half of the last century — pretty much different from the Amadeus Quartet, though.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

9’46”; 1/4 = 136
The character of this interpretation is rather soft, smooth, avoiding extremes, both in tempo and dynamically, pleasant, with a warm sound, definitely remains within the esthetics of the 1970’s, also regarding their constant use of vibrato.

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

10’25”; 3/8 = 35 (1/8 = 105)
Also this movement I would characterize as pleasant, but too uniform (all very moderate, lacking local contrast), too romantic (this is not late Beethoven yet!), the sforzati rather soft (as if they were afraid of shocking the audience!).

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’29”; 3/4 = 100
In the Scherzo part, the tempo is at the lower limit — combined with the mild accents in this interpretation, this sounds more like Allegretto, rather than Allegro molto. I think that for a Scherzo, this is too pleasant & elegant.

4. Allegro

6’30”; 1/4 = 122
For me, this is too soft (again!), not joyful enough. The beginning of the movement (in this interpretation) is too fragmented, short-breathed, lacking the big structures, and the fast passages lack articulation.

Recommendation: For me, this sounds like an “old fashioned” interpretation — OK, but nothing special.
Rating: 2.8 (3 / 3 / 3 / 2)

Quartetto Italiano (1972)

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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spacerThe Quartetto Italiano (1972, Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi) recorded all Beethoven string quartets in the early 70’s — op. 18/1 was recorded 1972.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

Another big name in the second half of the last century! And I’m happy that I added this recording to my collection, even though it remains within the boundaries of its time: Among the quartet formations discussed so far, they are the most homogeneous ensemble. OK, for current standards (considering historically informed playing), their vibrato is fairly strong and almost omnipresent — but their playing controlled, virtuoso, with excellent synchronization.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

8’57”; 1/4 = 152
This movement is very fast (not as fast as the Emerson Quartet, though), but sounds still natural, not rushed, and not careless. Clearly, the best interpretation so far, showing the big structures of the movement, yet alert and clear in the detail.

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

9’30”; 3/8 = 34 (1/8 = 102)
The vibrato of the main voice is maybe on the strong side & a bit uniform, but still OK, as the accompanying voices keep their tone pale and with little vibrato only.

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’26”; 3/4 = 102
The main criticism here is that this sounds almost like a Minuetto than a Scherzo, i.e., it is maybe a bit too pleasant at times — the Trio is certainly OK, though. Note that along with the Melos Quartet and the Artemis Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano takes over the tempo from the preceding movement (1/8 = 3/4, i.e., an entire bar in the Scherzo is played at the tempo of the minor units of the Adagio) — that’s not an obvious intent from Beethoven’s notation, but probably helps “bracketing” the interpretation.

4. Allegro

6’36”; 1/4 = 120
Here, the artists don’t have the ambition to be the fastest — they select a very natural tempo, the entire movement is played very carefully and with a lot of attention to details: I quite like this interpretation! One could maybe argue that for a final movement (by Beethoven) this is sometimes a little too pleasant. Also, there are some inconsistencies in the tempo (side theme a little faster without obvious “logic”) — maybe a cutting artifact? But otherwise: well done!

Recommendation: If you are looking for a traditional interpretation by one of the big names of the last century, this certainly is not a bad choice!
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3)

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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spacerThe Endellion String Quartet (2008, Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman): This ensemble was founded in 1979; on the occasion of their 30th anniversary they recorded all Beethoven string quartets, including the string quintets, as well as (virtually) all known fragments and related works.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

The Endellion Quartet may be well known in the U.K. — their presence in the Continental music market is limited; had I not been pointed to these musicians by a commenter in my blog (and in the BBCR3 forum), I would not have considered adding this box to my collection. In any case, the main motivation to look into this recording is in the chance to listen to the fragments, early versions and the quintets that are otherwise hard to find. More on this below.

The other “promoter” for this recording that is mentioned is in the fact that the Endellion Quartet is using Jonathan Del Mar’s new edition of these pieces that is now appearing in the Bärenreiter Verlag, allegedly including “numerous striking restorations of Beethoven’s original notes, rhythms, harmonies, slurrings, articulations and other markings, using meticulously researched, newly available sources.” The question is how much of this the listener is going to note, given the freedom in interpretation that artists typically apply! Without having listened to the complete set yet, I think that the differences will be rather small for the average listener, even when using a score (reconstructed, so far unpublished early versions and fragments are another story, of course).

How do they play?

So, how’s their playing? I don’t want to (and can’t) anticipate comments to all string quartets just yet, but from the few pieces that I have listened to so far (essentially op. 18/1 and an early version of that quartet), my first impression is that I like their general concept (the tempo selection, the general character of the individual movements), though despite the fact that they use sources that presumably are close(st) to Beethoven’s intent, they do not play at the forefront of historically informed performances (such as the Quatuor Mosaïques and others), i.e., they use vibrato pretty much throughout — though moderately, not to an extent / strength (speed and amplitude) that is really disturbing. I’m not worried about this — still, I’m not really happy with their playing:

I wish they would articulate more clearly, use less legato / broad articulation, more discharging / détaché, more dynamics, more clarity / transparency. Part of this may be poor sound management — but given that this is a very recent recording, I think it’s more in their playing. My primary blame goes to their soft articulation & phrasing (occasionally it sounds as if their playing was poorly coordinated!) and limited dynamics — but for details see below. A more “percussive” articulation (and left hand) and “discharging” notes would be of great help.

An Early Version of op.18/1

In terms of concrete comments, let me start with a really positive aspect of this recording: the reconstructed first version of op.18/1 is a nice and interesting experience: this gives some very nice insights into Beethoven’s composing process. At first, it sounds like “pretty much the same”, with only minor differences — but that’s in parts such as the exposition, where Beethoven had a clear vision of the main theme, and how to use it. The second theme already shows more alterations, but the most striking differences are in the “codetta”, the final part of the exposition, in the development phase, and in the final Coda.

In going from the first version to the final one, it is most amazing to see what Beethoven leaves out from the initial version: there is a lot of streamlining, clarification, also simplification — with a result that is much more concise, compelling, convincing, striking! This is a rare chance to gain such insights — though I suspect that after the listener has made that experience once, one will not return to the first version very often…

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

9’21”; 1/4 = 148
As mentioned above, I think the concept of this interpretation is OK, though I dislike their soft tone / articulation that (to me) lacks transparency and often sounds slightly “unclear”, “fuzzy” at times, there are occasional rushed figures, even unclear agogics (mixing takes, cutting errors?).

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

9’12”; 3/8 = 34 (1/8 = 102)
Excessively soft articulation, not transparent, often almost “sound soup”, the dynamics are limited / compressed — I hear lots of mf, a ppp is played pp at best. I could not resist remembering a statement that a violin teacher once made to me “A good tone begins with a ‘T’!” (he maliciously added “… hence the name ‘Hohner’!” — but I don’t mean to bash harmonica and accordion players and their instruments!).

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’20”; 3/4 = 108
Again, this soft articulation! The virtuosic first violin part in the Trio is often rushed, if not superficial.

4. Allegro

6’42”; 1/4 = 116
To me, this sometimes is a bit static, occasionally even stiff. Interesting in this movement: there are a couple general breaks in the main theme, and also (more prominently, maybe) one between the main theme and the second theme — these bear the danger of breaking the flow, which critically depends on the timing, and on “how one continues after the break”: one can use (marginally prolonged) breaks to build up tension, but it takes very little to “make things fall apart”. I don’t mean to say that the Endellions fail on this, but I did feel a slight discomfort around the breaks — hardly noticeable, but enough to make me think about how to handle these breaks…

Recommendation: To me, this falls under “conventional interpretation” — and within these, it doesn’t really stand out: sure, that first version of the  quartet is an interesting experience, but otherwise…
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1983)

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Melos Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: Die frühen Streichquartette op.18

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

DG 410 971-2 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ 1984
Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Melos Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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spacerThe Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1983, Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck) recorded all Beethoven string quartets twice: first, around 1970, for a small label, then again in the 80’s for DGG, after having “upgraded” to better instruments. This is from their second recording of the early quartets (op.18), from 1983.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

Within the esthetics of the 70’s/80’s, the Melos Quartett certainly was one of the more advanced formations, with their expressive, yet virtuoso and transparent playing, with excellent coordination, accuracy, alertness, etc.: they don’t try being “pleasant”. My main criticism now is the strong and fast vibrato, especially with the first violin that also tends to dominate somewhat.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

9’00”; 1/4 = 148
As indicated above, the main criticism here is the strong and somewhat nervous vibrato of the first violin, but otherwise this movement shows a lot of attention to details, without losing dight of the big structures. I like their percussive sforzati, their alertness.

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

9’25”; 3/8 = 36 (1/8 = 108)
The tempo here is faster than with the Quartetto Italiano. Actually, I prefer how it is done here: the tempo is allowing the melody to be expressive without being overstretched, nor being rushed, and — more importantly — they play 3 times (3/8) per bar, which I believe is the correct reading — and it actually keeps the atmosphere very calm throughout the movement. Some passages are almost whispered in the accompaniment but the melody voice always remains passionate (affection, seeking a response?) — a lonely voice in the darkness …

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’16”; 3/4 = 108
Also here, the pace (entire bars) is taken over from the 1/8 pace of the adagio — consequently, faster than the Quartetto Italiano; however, their staccati remain well articulated, never harsh, the accents are very clear and sharp — a true Scherzo! The fast passages for the first violin in the Trio part are at the limit, technically (but not beyond).

4. Allegro

5’58”; 1/4 = 130
This is very fast — but not quite as fast as the Amadeus Quartet, and it remains within the limits of still being controlled, accurate, precise, well articulated — well done! Some minor tempo inconsistencies could be cutting artifacts.

Recommendation: From the quartets of the last century, this is certainly my first choice (for this composition, at least).
Rating: 3.8 (4 / 4 / 3 / 4)

Hagen Quartett (2003)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 59/1, Hagen Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets (opp. 18/1, 59/1)

Hagen Quartett

DG / iTunes download (stereo, 256 Kbps); ℗ 2003
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spacerThe Hagen Quartett (2003, Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen) — for general comments on this ensemble see my blog entries on Beethoven’s op.127 and op.130.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

8’14”; 1/4 = 165
The first movement is very fast. It’s faster even than the Emerson String Quartet: too fast for my taste. It’s highly virtuosic, accurate, transparent, dramatic, with very clear articulation, but as a listener I feel (almost) constantly pushed through this piece. This is Allegro con brio, not Presto!

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

8’20”; 3/8 = 39 (1/8 = 117)
From the metronome numbers (and probably also to some listeners), this sounds rather fast (it’s almost as fast as the Amadeus Quartet). However, it does not feel that way if one takes 3/8 as the counting unit; after all, the movement is also labeled appassionato. Indeed, this is passionate, often dramatic (where this is needed). At the same time, there are passages almost without vibrato (especially in the first violin), very subtle passages (with the voices gliding into each other), moments with a desperate, pale mood, almost whispered notes (a true ppp!). Simply excellent: this interpretation is a masterpiece!

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’14”; 3/4 = 112
The Scherzo part is maybe slightly pushed, occasionally slightly rushed. But then, the Trio is very good / excellent, with very sharp accents, accurate, vivid, virtuosic, dramatic!

4. Allegro

6’08”; 1/4 = 130
Again very, very good, dramatic, accurate, virtuosic, with lively agogics (not as much as the Artemis Quartet, though) and dynamics!

Recommendation: Excellent! Technically as good as the Artemis Quartet, but with more focus on expression, drama, virtuosity (i.e., less “intellectual” than the Artemis Quartet).
Rating: 4.8 (4 / 5 / 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
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spacerThe Artemis Quartet (2010, Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge) have just finished recording all Beethoven string quartets. The quartets op.18/1 and op.127 were recorded 2010.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

This is an excellent, newer ensemble, founded in 1989 — though in 2007 two new members joined the group. Technically, they are certainly one of the top quartet formations of these days (some claim they are the top quartet), above the Melos Quartett. I would not rate their playing as “historically informed” in the pure sense — but they come pretty close: their vibrato is very moderate, almost inconspicuous (and they don’t shy away from playing passages without vibrato, where appropriate!).

They have “gone to school” with several well-known formations (Emerson Quartet [!!!] and Alban Berg Quartet), but they have certainly kept up-to-date with the recent developments. Their technical and musical abilities are excellent, they are virtuosic and well-balanced, and always transparent. Within the limits given by the composition, one could certainly not say that one player dominates the ensemble. The sound quality of these recordings is excellent, too: I don’t regret having these CDs!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

9’08”; 1/4 = 142
The tempo here feels “right” (remember: allegro means joyful, not fast!), their playing is transparent, yet very homogeneous, accurate, paying attention to the tiniest details in the notation – like it!

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

8’51”; 3/8 = 37 (1/8 = 111)
Technically, this is more polished than with the Melos Quartett, though the latter maybe is stronger, more radical in the expression; if there wasn’t that vibrato issue, I would perhaps even prefer the Melos Quartett — though also here there’s enough vibrato in some passages, but otherwise this interpretation is certainly impeccable!

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

4’00” (Scherzo repeats also in da capo part); 3/4 = 111
Again, the pace (entire bars) is the same as the 1/8 pace of the adagio — slightly faster than the Melos Quartett, but technically better — almost mere perfection! The movement retains the scherzo character – excellent, can’t be done much better!

4. Allegro

6’43”; 1/4 = 116
I don’t have much to add here: they are not trying to beat anybody in the tempo – their tempo is perfectly adequate for “allegro”

Recommendation: If you are looking for a “near-perfect”, very well-played version, and if you are looking for a complete recording of all Beethoven quartets, the Artemis Quartet looks like the ideal choice!
Rating: 4.8 (5 / 4 / 5 / 5)

Quatuor Mosaïques (2004)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 18/4, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets op.18/1 & 18/4

Quatuor Mosaïques

naïve E 8899 (stereo); ℗ 2004 © 2005
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 18/4, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerThe Quatuor Mosaïques (2004, Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin) so far has just recorded the early string quartets (op.18); the recordings of op.18/1 and op.18/4 on this CD happened in 2004.

General Remarks on the Ensemble

The Quatuor Mosaïques is getting very good reviews — though they have a different approach: their founder, Christophe Coin is also playing viola da gamba, i.e., they are focusing on music of the early classical period (not sure they even plan on recording more Beethoven quartets, beyond op.18). Consequently, they are closer to historically informed playing than any of the above formations: here, the vibrato really is what it used to be (up to the beginning of the 20th century, actually): an ornament, or an option to put focus on specific notes.

You can expect them to select a more moderate tempo, which gives them the opportunity to focus on musical expression / articulation at a much smaller scale than quartets which try to beat speed records. Their focus is not no much mere perfection or the ultimate, “polished” performance, but expression, musical language, phrasing, detail. Here, you will find new aspects in compositions that you believed to know!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

10’03”; 1/4 = 130
The tempo here is the same as with the Amadeus Quartet — though with a vast amount of additional detail, especially in phrasing. The microphones must have been rather close, as the sound is extremely detailed. I love the fact that one can hear how the sound is generated on string instruments: this is much less sterile than any of the above recordings. Excellent ensemble playing — a wonderful recording! Just a detail: I love their articulation of the “dactylus” rhythms at the beginning of the coda!

2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato

10’07”; 3/8 = 34 (1/8 = 102)
Played with very little vibrato (often none at all!) — this broadens the spectrum of their expression enormously without having to resort to such dramatic means as the Melos Quartet. With the latter, the “affettuoso ed appassionato” is concentrated on the melody, with the accompanying instruments providing a desperate background / mood — here, the entire ensemble is sharing the affection and passion, the effect (for me) is even stronger!

3. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

3’30”; 3/4 = 98
This may be the slowest tempo for this movement — but through the added detail and expression, the movement is just as vivid and lively as with the others! The Trio is stress-free, and the tempo allows the first violin to articulate even the fastest passages.

4. Allegro

7’04”; 1/4 = 112
As in the other movements, you will find much more detail in articulation, phrasing, dynamic variations — and very subtle agogics (it’s actually hard to determine their metronome numbers, due to the frequent, fine variations in the tempo — though amazingly, these variations are very inconspicuous!

Recommendation: Clearly my favorite — with the only drawback that they (so far) did op.18 only — and if you dislike “strict” historically informed playing, take the Artemis Quartet or the Hagen Quartett instead!
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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