Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in D major, op.18/3

Media Review / Comparison


2011-11-05 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-10 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet added
2013-08-05 — New standard layout applied
2013-09-16 — Added 2012 recording by the Hagen Quartett
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-08 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction / The Recordings

This is the third note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in D major, op.18/3 — 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 D major, op.18/3 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

The beginning of this movement (shown here) may be somewhat misleading: it looks like — and is — a slow introduction, but not necessarily the way one might think: some ensembles start the movement with a slower tempo, reaching the intended allegro only around bar #20. This forces the artists to switch back to the slower pace when they return to the beginning of the exposition, thereby disrupting the flow — plus, the “intro theme” returns at various places in the movement, and then one can’t always slow down.

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/3, mvt.1, score sample

Also, one should note that no indication for such tempo changes are found in the score. I believe that the “slow” is there — but implicitly, as part of the composition, i.e., through the initial, long chords the impression of a slow introduction is there even if a (more or less) constant tempo is used throughout.

2. Andante con moto (2/4)

Another “notation mystery” here: Andante con moto, 2/4 — but all ensembles here clearly read this as Andante con moto on the eights (i.e., played like 4/8), not on the quarter notes (even though the major beats are of course on the quarter notes). Then, there’s the character of the piece — is it really just a lovely andante, or isn’t there more behind this? After all, Beethoven often puts a lot of his emotions into his slow movements — read on!

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

3. Allegro (3/4)

The tempo is an issue also in this movement (looks like a quartet full of tempo mysteries!): most quartets play entire bars rather than three quarter notes; this leads to a fast tempo that tends to suppress the details in the minore part with its sixteenth passages. Another interesting feature is in the many octave parallels, especially between the two violins, in this movement — see the notes on the Quatuor Mosaïques. The real question is whether this is merely a harmless, playful Menuet-style dance, or rather a more serious and dramatic piece of music; the Quatuor Mosaïques answers this rather convincingly, I think!

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/3, mvt.3, score sample
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/3, mvt.3, score sample, Maggiore

4. Presto (6/8)

A bit unusual, this is another sonata movement, with the exposition to be repeated. The tempo is supposed to be presto, the notation is 6/8 – to be played 3 + 3. The eights are the smallest notes (if we disregard the few notes with appoggiatura), making it tempting to play this very fast — at the expense of details, articulation and phrasing; especially the oddly placed sforzati suggest a slower tempo, as shown by the Quatuor Mosaïques.

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/3, 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”:

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/3, comparison, M.M. table

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:


Amadeus Quartet (1961)

Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded 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

5’45” (exposition not repeated); 1/2 = 100
Their tempo is held more consequently than by the Quartetto Italiano and the Guarneri String Quartet; otherwise see op.18/1 and 18/2.

2. Andante con moto

8’00”; 1/8 = 68 – 80
Too static / mechanical; some portamenti, rough tone

3. Allegro

3’10”; 3/4 = 92
The articulation in the minore part is somewhat careless, otherwise see op.18/1 and 18/2.

4. Presto

4’51” (exposition not repeated); 3/8 = 150
With their usual, rough tone — though on the bright side, they are rhythmically accurate, the sforzati stand out nicely, and they consider the large phrases in this movement.

Recommendation:Maybe classic, but no longer a recommendation, definitely.
Rating:2.8 (3 / 2 / 3 / 3)

Emerson String Quartet (1996)

Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded 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

7’33”; 1/2 = 112
Is this ensemble playing con sordino?? That’s at least what it sounds like — very strange, soft, almost synthetic sound compared to all other interpretations, and not appropriate for this movement, especially after listening to the Quatuor Mosaïques (see below)! It’s not transparent, there is too much vibrato, and the portamenti in the coda sound rather old-fashioned! Also, there are some odd tempo disruptions.

2. Andante con moto

7’08”; 1/8 = 86
The tempo is OK here (andante con moto should be close to an allegretto!), but again the character chosen is way too soft; they seem to hesitate playing ff — makes it almost sound like a pastorale!

3. Allegro

2’43”; 3/4 = 98
Too playful, light, harmless; it all sounds like p only; OK, there is indeed not a single f or ff in this movement — but there are many sf and several crescendi, i.e., the dramatic components in the movement are neglected in this interpretation. The minore part is rushed.

4. Presto

5’42”; 3/8 = 180
Trying to break the speed record again: faster than all others, but it is well articulated and still transparent, though one may feel a bit stressed by the speed. I think they take this movement too light, ignoring most of the emotion and drama: it sounds like a fast, mechanical clockwork: although most details are there, the listener does not get the time to capture, let alone understand the musical development at small scales.

Recommendation:No. Overall, this interpretation is definitely too soft, light — and too fast.
Rating:2.8 (2 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Guarneri String Quartet (1995)

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Guarneri String Quartet (1995), CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded 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

8’01”; 1/2 = 106
They use fairly extensive agogics in the introduction, almost rubato; for my taste, the vibrato is too strong (and omnipresent) — the vibrato does not help the transparency & clarity in this movement!

2. Andante con moto

8’08”; 1/8 = 74 – 86
Strong agogics, almost rubato at times; otherwise see op.18/1 and 18/2.

3. Allegro

2’53”; 3/4 = 94
A traditional interpretation, more than enough vibrato.

4. Presto

5’53”; 3/8 = 172
Almost as fast as the Emerson String Quartet — but with their strong vibrato, this loses contours and clarity / detail, and often this sounds rushed.

Recommendation:No — outdated, at best.
Rating:2.8 (3 / 3 / 3 / 2)

Endellion String Quartet (2005)

Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded in 2005, with Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman — for general remarks see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

7’24”; 1/2 = 106
This movement deserves more articulation and expression: to me, this is too pleasant, also lacking some transparency, maybe. Also, the dynamics are rather compressed, e.g., ff is typically played f (at most), and p is often mf.

2. Andante con moto

7’32”; 1/8 = 82
The tempo and the interpretation in general are OK — though sometimes rather static; this could be more expressive: it is too harmless (as some of the other interpretations demonstrate, this is not an idyllic country scene!).

3. Allegro

2’54”; 3/4 = 92
To me, this is too soft. OK, the movement is annotated p and pp — but there are also several < > and crescendi; it all sounds p .. mf, and the sf, sfp, as well as the other dynamic annotations are not audible well enough.

4. Presto

6’18”; 3/8 = 162
The general impression in this movement is that this is too lovely, playful, harmless; it could as well be Mozart or Haydn — but I’m absolutely sure that Beethoven wanted to achieve more than to pay tribute to his (alleged) forefathers. Quite to the contrary: in these works he wanted to prove himself as strong, autonomous personality. Here, it’s all soft, including the sf and the strong syncopes, lacking drama and emotion.

The worst / most odd aspect of this interpretation is that at the very beginning of the main theme they put the accent on the first note in these groups of three eighths, as if there was a syncopating accent on these notes, giving a very odd impression, i.e., as if the slurs on these groups of notes were phrasing slurs. It distorts the rhythmic structure of the theme; Beethoven does use such effects at times. In fact, a few bars later he does exactly that, but then he writes a clear sf on the second eighth.

I’m sure that if Beethoven had wanted this effect at the very beginning, he would have placed clearly visible accents or sf on these notes (and I very much doubt that Jonathan del Mar has been digging this up!) — everybody else plays this almost like an acciaccatura, i.e., with the accent on the last note in these groups.

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

Quartetto Italiano (1972)

Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded in 1972, 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

8’10”; 1/2 = 100
They may not start that much slower, but there is an accelerando towards the end of the exposition, which enforces a somewhat disruptive slow-down for the repetition of the exposition and the transition to the development part. In this movement, they sometimes tend towards a “soft” beginning of the notes (soft articulation); on the other hand, the staccati in the first violin sound somewhat mechanical and could have a little more sound.

2. Andante con moto

8’31”; 1/8 = 70 – 80
Definitely on the slow side (hardly andante con moto!); they often show a tendency to play each note like “<>” — to a degree that makes successive eights almost sound syncopic — not their best performance!

3. Allegro

3’05”; 3/4 = 86
This is more moderate than the Amadeus Quartet, mostly OK, though the maggiore part for me is too gentle, too soft, and sometimes a bit heavy.

4. Presto

6’43”; 3/8 = 150
The tempo is about the same as with the Amadeus Quartett, though the articulation is much more careful and soft (too soft, maybe) — but they catch the dramatic moments in this movement

Recommendation:Probably one of the better of the “classic” interpretations, certainly was a recommendation 30 years ago.
Rating:3.2 (3 / 3 / 3 / 4)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1983)

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Melos Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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Recorded 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

7’11”; 1/2 = 110
The entire movement is allegro here (does not feel like a slow introduction, i.e., they follow the score!) — very good, virtuoso, clean in the intonation, though the vibrato is a bit strong at times.

2. Andante con moto

7’29”; 1/8 = 82
Mostly a good, expressive interpretation, though the vibrato is a bit strong, and when even staccato eights are played with vibrato, that can be irritating and make it sound like bad intonation.

3. Allegro

2’49”; 3/4 = 106
Faster, but much more dramatic (especially with the sf and the crescendi!) than the Emerson String Quartet. They exhibit lots of agility, with focus on the large structures, the long phrases. Very fast overall — the minore part sometimes sounds somewhat rushed / pressed for speed.

4. Presto

5’40”; 3/8 = 176
They play almost as fast as the Emerson String Quartet, but with far more presence, liveliness: they take their time to place the sforzati, particularly the syncopated ones (which are hardly noticed as such with the Emerson String Quartet!). Good, fast, accurate!

Recommendation:For me, the best of the “classic” interpretations, a bit less “intellectual” than the Artemis Quartet.
Rating:4.0 (4 / 4 / 4 / 4)

Artemis Quartet (2010)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/3, 18/5, 135

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 070834 2 6 (stereo); ℗ / © 2011

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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In the complete recording of the Beethoven quartets by the Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge) this is a very recent recording: op.18/3, op.18/5 and op.135 were recorded in 2010.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

7’22”; 1/2 = 108
What fascinates me here is that they have obviously carefully and thoroughly considered the agogics, and what phrasing & articulation to use — there’s a lot of detail in this interpretation, the sforzati are placed accurately and stand out nicely. An interesting detail: for the syncopated section in bars 68 – 75 they switch to a slower tempo, returning to the original tempo immediately for the forte in bar 76. It’s obviously a very conscious element — though I’m not quite sure I like it; still, an excellent interpretation.

2. Andante con moto

7’48”; 1/8 = 76 – 80
I like the tension, the long phrases in this interpretation, and the transparency, the clarity, the detailed dynamic structuring, and the dramatic expression. the one thing I dislike is their vibrato throughout.

3. Allegro

2’47”; 3/4 = 98 — 3/4 = 104 (minore part)
Close to the interpretation of the Melos Quartett, but definitely with more focus on the smaller structures, the careful and thoughtful articulation; clean in the intonation. A very conscious interpretation; the minorepart is taken somewhat faster than the rest of the movement.

4. Presto

6’10”; 3/8 = 164
Slower than the Melos Quartett; this allows them to pay more attention to details / short phrases, second voices and transparency. The interpretation exhibits the very conscious / reflected use of agogics and dynamics.

Recommendation:An excellent, very detailed interpretation — definitely a recommendation! Maybe a bit on the intellectual side?
Rating:4.5 (4 / 5 / 4 / 5)

Hagen Quartett (2012)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/3, 18/5, 135

Hagen Quartett

Myrios Classics MYR009 (SACD: 5-channel surround / stereo); ℗ 2012 / © 2013

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Hagen Quartett, EAN-13 barcode
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This is the most recent of the Beethoven recordings by the Hagen Quartett (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen) so far: op.18/3, op.18/5 and op.135 were recorded in 2012.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

7’52”; 1/2 = 108
Even though it is not really (much) slower than the rest of the movement, the beginning feels like a slow introduction — soft, played carefully; the Hagens play with distinct agogics, and the main theme is (& especially feels) faster than the beginning; it is all virtuosic and very accurate in the articulation (i.e., in following Beethoven’s notation), and similarly, one can hear very well observed dynamics (note that there are very few ff passages in this movement!).

2. Andante con moto

7’37”; 1/8 = 84
One can clearly sense the con moto here, in that the interpretation is “leaning forward”, showing distinctly more detail than the Artemis Quartet — yet less “intellectual”, constructed; expressive, again with very noticeable agogics, both large scale as small scale (intra-bar). I like their sparing, targeted use of vibrato.

3. Allegro

3’05”; 3/4 = 96
Careful, intimate, thoughtful, often moody, controlled — not one of those exuberant or dramatic scherzi. Unlike with the Quatuor Mosaïques, the parallel passages are softened by a slight / subtle vibrato.

4. Presto

6’15”; 3/8 = 168
Light, playful, virtuosic, agile (I like these accents, and the syncopes!), transparent, and again played with very noticeable agogics (but never irritating / disturbing in this). Very nice: at the end of the evolution part, the first violin makes the transition to the recapitulation stand out by using “romantic / melancholic glissandi” — a nice little joke, for sure!

Recommendation:Very good, excellent! Probably the first choice if you don’t like the “extreme HIP” of the Quatuor Mosaïques — I like both interpretations equally well, also because they show two entirely different aspects of this composition: with the Hagen Quartett, the composition is definitely more playful, less dramatic.
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Quatuor Mosaïques (2005)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2 & 18/3, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD cover

Beethoven: 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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This is part of the second CD of Beethoven’s op.18 by the Quatuor Mosaïques (2005, Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin), covering op.18/2 and op.18/3 — for general comments and CD information see op.18/2;

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

9’08”; 1/2 = 84
I love those (almost) vibrato-free chord blocks — like granite blocks, connected with tender melodies, like with a silk web! More important than that: with (some of) the other interpretations this movement gives the impression of a gentle galanterie (almost) — here, the contours of the composition are much clearer and more direct, and without the softening of an excess vibrato, one suddenly realizes how many dissonances there are in this movement, and this music suddenly has a much more serious character, it sounds more modern / advanced, and there is much more depth than in all of the other interpretations — amazing!

The only negative point, maybe: the tempo is substantially slower than with all others, and not really allegro any longer — but I think this is more than compensated by the extra depth & insight. Despite the slow tempo, one does not get the impression of a (slow) introduction: one is in medias res right from the beginning.

2. Andante con moto

7’44”; 1/8 = 80
For me, this is yet a level above the performance by the Artemis Quartet: here it is obvious that this is not a lovely pastorale, but a movement with lots of strong emotions, even dramatic passages! Why use vibrato if it sounds so much better and clearer (almost) without?

3. Allegro

3’28”; 3/4 = 80 (1/4 = 240)
It’s like opening a door to a new world: the tempo is slower than with all other interpretations (the tempo is perfectly adequate for an allegro in 3/4) — but it does not really feel so slow: the interpretation is much more dramatic and serious than the others (I don’t read amabile anywhere!), the syncopated sforzati stand out nicely! Another feature that comes to light only here are the many octave parallels between the two violins: with vibrato, these are hardly noticed — but here they sound sharp, almost painfully sharp, exposing the serious (not lovely!) character of this movement: considering that at Beethoven’s time vibrato was rarely used, this must be the intended effect in this piece!

4. Presto

7’11”; 3/8 = 136
This is the only interpretation in this comparison that really shows the 6/8 — all others play much faster, leaving the impression of a 2/4 notation with trioles on the quarter notes. As with the previous movement, the very first impression is “slow” when comparing directly to any other interpretation — but that impression quickly disappears, given the amount of drama & humor, articulation and detail — details that are impossible to perceive in many other interpretations (which often seem focused on speed)!

Recommendation:Clearly, my #1 recommendation again, together with the Hagen Quartett (I know: this starts to sound boring!)
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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