Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in G major, op.18/2

Media Review / Comparison


2011-10-29 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-08 — New standard layout applied
2013-08-05 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-08 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction / The Recordings

This is the second note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in G major, op.18/2 — references to the CDs are given at the bottom of the respective section, or in one of the related postings, or see the summary on the postings covering Beethoven’s String Quartets. Here’s a short list of the recordings in this comparison, in alphabetic order:


The Composition

The String Quartet in G major, op.18/2 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro (2/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.1, score sample
In the opening movement, Beethoven specifies “Allegro” (lively, not fast!) — the movement is written in 2/4 time, but if the quarter notes are really played allegro (typically 1/4 = 90, if not more), the fast ornaments are hardly playable. If on the other hand the tempo is adjusted for the ornaments, the tempo typically feels like allegretto at most, if not andante — tricky!

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.2, score sample, Adagio cantabile
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.2, score sample, Allegro
The second movement presents challenges in the tempo, too: Beethoven writes Adagio cantabile, where adagio means calm, not slow; the movement is written in 3/4 time — however, most of the notation rather looks like 6/8 (2 groups of 3 eighths) — the artists play 1/8 = 60 up to 72 (which really would be 1/4 = 30 up to 36 — but the quarter beat can’t really be played anyway). I think this is one instance where one should focus on the cantabile while maintaining a calm character for the slow parts.

Then, there’s the question of the Allegro part: should there be a relationship between the main beats (1/4) and a beat in the adagio part? Some ensembles indeed play 1/4 at twice the speed as the eighths in the adagio, i.e., 2/4 (entire bar in the allegro) at the pace of 1/8 in the adagio. This is not prescribed by Beethoven, but some may call this obvious. The allegro part has its own challenges, in that the 1/16 (down) + 3/16 (up) are hard to play at this pace!

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.3, score sample, Scherzo
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.3, score sample, Trio

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/2, mvt.4, score sample

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.18/2, comparison, M.M. table

My Comments on the Individual Recordings

The order of the interpretations is not chronological (neither by recording / publishing date nor by purchase date), but follows my personal, subjective rating, my preferred 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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spacerRecorded in 1961, with Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

5’45” (exposition not repeated); 1/4 = 88
The basic speed is among the faster ones for this movement — yet the character is allegretto at best. The tone is fairly rough, often almost violent, some of the ornaments aren’t played very carefully. A mystery why they don’t repeat the exposition!

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

6’20”; 1/8 = 68 — 1/4 = 126
The vibrato of the first violin is almost unbearable, almost obnoxious: very slow, heavy, too strong. On top of that, some portamenti make this sound like a really old interpretation. The allegro is dominated by their rough tone and excess accents on the first note in every bar.

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’19”; 1/4 = 150
Fast notes are rushed over, not carefully played, the accents are hard, if not harsh, the Trio is somewhat stiff.

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’46”; 1/4 = 156
Rough, coarse, loud — often, the melody voice covers all others. Also, there is a slight tendency to associate crescendo with accelerando, for no obvious reason (often considered a bad habit!)

Recommendation: no!
Rating: 2.0 (2 / 2 / 2 / 2)

Quartetto Italiano (1975)

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 1975, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

8’29”; 1/4 = 76
This is on the slow and heavy side — for me, this rather sounds like an andante; they probably followed the philosophy of adjusting the tempo such that the smaller notes remain well playable, disregarding the rest?

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

6’44”; 1/8 = 60 — 1/4 = 130
This definitely is slow, not just calm — too slow, in my opinion. Plus, the first violin uses a very heavy vibrato, which makes the adagio part very heavy. They close the first part with an extensive ritardando / smorzando — there is no attempt to link the fast part with the adagio.

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’24”; 1/4 = 144
A playful Scherzo, no attempt to “play nice” — I like the natural tone.

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’56”; 1/4 = 152
OK, no more, no less

Recommendation: An OK interpretation for those who prefer the “traditional” approach — though I can’t really recommend it (unless you are a fan of this ensemble).
Rating: 2.5 (2 / 2 / 3 / 3)

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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spacerRecorded in 1995, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

7’45”; 1/4 = 84
The tempo is OK here.

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

5’39”; 1/8 = 72 — 1/4 = 145
Adagio: pretty heavy vibrato, extreme agogics — almost senza tempo. They take over the beat of the allegro from the adagio part — however, unfortunately, the fast notes in the allegro aren’t played very carefully.

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’09”; 1/4 = 158
There are some slight accelerandi that I don’t quite understand — cutting artifacts, or intentional? The Trio is OK.

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’39”; 1/4 = 160
Often, the tempo in rapid sixteenth passages, or in staccato eighths appears rushed, careless (loss of control?)

Recommendation: An OK interpretation for those who prefer the “traditional” approach — though I can’t really recommend it for any good reason.
Rating: 2.5 (3 / 2 / 3 / 2)

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
Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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spacerRecorded in 1996, with Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

7’23”; 1/4 = 86
The tempo is OK, though the interpretation overall remains sterile, see op.18/1

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

5’54”; 1/8 = 70 — 1/4 = 140
Too much vibrato. The tempo is rather linear — but too slow, really: the ornaments are played as melody, hereby stretching out the real melody beyond recognition. Beat taken over for the allegro part (see above), though the sixteenth notes are somewhat hasted, not very clear (they are a challenge, though!)

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’04”; 1/4 = 162
Good (no more, no less) — either this movement is better suited for these artists, or the music is simply stronger??

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’10”; 1/4 = 172
Very fast, but well played — though at times one feels somewhat chased, pressed for speed.

Recommendation: The Emerson quartet is much better here than in op.18/1 — is the music a better fit for these artists, or is Beethoven’s music simply stronger here, such that their sterile playing can’t prevail?
Rating: 3.5 (3 / 3 / 4 / 4)

Endellion String Quartet (2008)

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

Endellion String Quartet

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

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

8’05”; 1/4 = 80
Pretty slow and “leaned back”, Andante rather than Allegro — but otherwise OK, even good, the best movement I heard of the Endellion String Quartet so far (looks like this movement is a better “fit” for this ensemble than the virtuosic ones in op.18/1): well articulated, good phrasing. A nice detail: the parallel octaves between the two violins in the recapitulation part, played with very little (if any) vibrato and clear intonation.

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

5’54”; 1/8 = 64 — 1/4 = 142
I don’t know why they select such fuzzy, soft articulation in the Adagio cantabile part — this (combined with a vibrato that is spread over the entire section) doesn’t make this more expressive — quite to the contrary! Also, for my feeling, the intonation is a bit marginal at times, in the Adagio cantabile. Worse than that: the Allegro part is played too fast, with an articulation that can be called superficial — at best!

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’19”; 1/4 = 160
OK, but the tempo is at the upper limit for this ensemble: articulation is just still possible, though one starts feeling “pushed”; the Trio is OK.

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’35”; 1/4 = 160
Some rushed passages / figures, occasionally, (to my ear) the intonation is marginal. On the bright side, besides the Quatuor Mosaïques they are the only ones adding a cadenza in this movement.

Recommendation: OK, but not more, except for the first movement, maybe.
Rating: 3.0 (4 / 2 / 3 / 3)

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, Heime Müller, Volker Jacobsen, and Eckart Runge, as part of their set of the complete Beethoven quartet recordings. This one is still with their original composition with Heime Müller and Sigi Feigl who have since left the quartet. If I’m not mistaken, they used more vibrato in 2002 than they do now!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

7’43”; 1/4 = 86
For me, the character of the movement remains a bit on the slow side (rather allegretto than allegro, from the base beat) — however, they have an enormous width in expression (what a contrast to the Emerson Quartet!), all details are well played out and clear.

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

6’25”; 1/8 = 68 — 1/4 = 132
Comparable to the Melos Quartett, but with slightly less vibrato.

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

5’09” (da capo part with repetitions); 1/4 = 152
Clean playing, though with less character and expression than the Melos Quartett. The Trio is played with its own character, a tad slower than the first part.

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’17”; 1/4 = 182
Too fast? The staccato eighths sometimes appear to run away. Slower and more carefully would have been better!

Recommendation: Good — though I think it does not reach or match the qualities of op.18/1 — the difference could be due to the new quartet composition, or maybe simply through the additional experience over the past years?
Rating: 4.2 (5 / 4 / 4 / 4)

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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spacerRecorded in 1983, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1;

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

6’59”; 1/4 = 92
This is the fastest version, but comes closest to an allegro in character — the payoff is that there is less differentiation / attention for the detail than with the Artemis Quartet.

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

6’35”; 1/8 = 64 — 1/4 = 138
The adagio part is rather free (senza tempo, almost), the cantabile very expressive (the vibrato is a bit too heavy, though). The articulation in the allegro is excellent! Unfortunately, the Adagio cantabile is dominated by a vast excess of vibrato.

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’01”; 1/4 = 168
Rather Presto than Allegro — but very well played, playful, expressive, scherzoso; playful also in the Trio part. Lots of character, never stiff, but flexible, yet very clean and characterful; I like the outbursts in this movement!

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’07”; 1/4 = 178
This is probably at the upper speed limit — but absolutely mastered by the Melos Quartett; they also always keep the control over the tempo and the dynamics — excellent!

Recommendation: For me, clearly the second recommendation (maybe the first recommendation for those who dislike non-vibrato playing!)
Rating: 4.2 (4 / 3 / 5 / 5)

Quatuor Mosaïques (2005)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2 & 18/3, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets op.18/2 & 18/3

Quatuor Mosaïques

naïve E 8902 (stereo); ℗ 2006 / © 2007
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2 & 18/3, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerThis is the second CD of Beethoven’s op.18 with Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, and Christophe Coin, covering op.18/2 and op.18/3, recorded in 2005. For general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (2/4)

8’12”; 1/4 = 82
This sounds like an andante rather than an allegro — in compensation, one gets rewarded with a lot of attention to details, phrasing, transparency, making it easy to follow the polyphony in this movement!

2. Adagio cantabile (3/4) — Allegro (2/4) — Tempo I

5’41”; 1/8 = 72 — 1/4 = 112
Same base pace as the Guarneri Quartet, but as they play without the excess ritardandi, this feels much more fluent, and ornaments are played as such, the (slow, extended) melodies can be followed, and a lot of clarity is gained by restricting the vibrato to a minimum (it really is an ornament here!). Very nice articulation in the allegro showing details that can’t be heard elsewhere — very nice!

3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

4’36”; 1/4 = 140
This is truly allegro, not presto! This may be the slowest version — but that’s more than compensated by a much larger dynamic range (like these ff outbursts!), transparency, so much more detail!!

4. Allegro molto quasi Presto (2/4)

5’32”; 1/4 = 168
This is more moderate than the Melos Quartett in the tempo — which gives these artists the opportunity for playful, dynamic and more colorful playing, extra freedom in the agogics, transparency, a lot more detail (polyphonic parts!); I also like the two short cadenzas at fermata points — they sound so natural that one starts wondering why none of the others use this opportunity!

Recommendation: Yet again, my clear favorite! I love the sound of these instruments — I think the playing without (or with little) vibrato exhibits the real qualities of these period instruments!
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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