Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor, op.18/4

Media Review / Comparison


2011-11-19 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-14 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet and Hagen Quartett added
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 fourth note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in C minor, op.18/4 — 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 C minor, op.18/4 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1828) features the following movements:

1. Allegro ma non tanto (4/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.1, score sampleThis is one of several key works by Beethoven written in C minor:

  • the piano trio op.1/3
  • the opening movement of the piano sonata op.10/1
  • the piano sonata op.13 “Pathétique”
  • the opening and the last movement in the sonata for piano & violin op.30/2
  • the opening movement of the third piano concerto op.37
  • the symphony nr.5 op.67
  • the piano introduction to the choral fantasy op.80
  • the opening movement to the last piano sonata, op.111
  • the 32 variations on an original theme WoO 80

From these works one can see that C minor for Beethoven was the tonality to express strong emotions, internal turmoil, if not drama — and this certainly also applies to this and other movements in this quartet.

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto (3/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.2, score sampleOne interesting feature in this quartet is that there is no really slow movement — and that there is both a Menuetto and a Scherzo. The most striking feature in this movement are the many fugati or canon-like segments, meaning that focus here is on polyphony and transparency — a strongly leading first violin does not help, to say the least! Secondly, there are long sequences of eighth and sixteenth notes with staccato notation. From some of the older recordings one can gather that it must be quite tough to play these staccato notes short & fast, but still so that they are more than scratching noise!

3. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Menuetto da capo

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.3, score sample, MenuettoBeethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.3, score sample, TrioTempo relations are an interesting topic with this movement: The main tempo is allegretto, presumably something between an andante (“walking”) and an allegro (“joyful”, not fast!). There is no tempo annotation with the Trio, and both parts are in 3/4 measures, but at the end of the Trio, Beethoven writes Menuetto da capo, and La seconda volta si prende il Tempo più Allegro: the second pass of the Menuetto should be played faster (than the first one); whether that means prestissimo is another question!

The Trio has two tricky moments for the first violin: in the first part there is a sfp fermata on the a”’, and after a general break, the melody continues solo, p, and on a” (an octave lower); in the second half, the same passage is even a fifth higher, on d”” / d”’: with the older recordings the beginning after the break is often shaky, some even have problems with the intonation during the rapid diminuendo in the sfp.

4. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2) — Prestissimo

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.4, score sample, AllegroBeethoven, string quartet op.18/4, mvt.4, score sample, PrestissimoA dramatic Rondo of sorts, with the intermezzi opening up an entire microcosmos, particularly in certain interpretations! Some highly exposed, “touchy” passages for the first violin!

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.18/4, 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 recordings 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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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 ma non tanto

6’36” (exposition not repeated); 1/4 = 140
The first violin is way too dominating — enhancing that voice is totally unnecessary because it hides the polyphony in this piece: where Beethoven wanted the first violin to stand out, he did so through the composition — why otherwise would he have placed it more than an octave above the others over longer periods? Also, the first violin sometimes articulates inaccurately. On the positive side, the sforzati stand out nicely in this interpretation — they are almost dramatic, short & sharp.

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

5’37” (first part not repeated); 1/8 = 152
The first violin dominates way too much — this is particularly bad with such a polyphonic movement!

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’48”; 1/4 = 186 / 186 / 198
Dramatic, better than Quartetto Italiano and Guarneri String Quartet. The Trio keeps the tempo of the Menuetto, the da capo is very noticeably faster and even accelerando.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’25”; 1/2 = 144 / 152
Too loud, coarse, even violent — and the articulation in the first violin is not very careful, often rushed.

Recommendation: No.
Rating: 2.5 (3 / 2 / 3 / 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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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 ma non tanto

9’36”; 1/4 = 136
Plenty of vibrato throughout, no real pp in this movement: the dynamic span pp .. ff sounds compressed to maybe mf up to ff

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

7’48”; 1/8 = 144
Too much vibrato, especially in the first violin, coarse articulation, not much differentiation

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

4’10”; 1/4 = 174 / 170 / 186
Slightly faster than the Quartetto Italiano. I can see reasons for doing the Trio at a slower tempo — however, here, the difference is just barely noticeable, so why change the tempo at all? Overall, for my taste they play too much legato in this movement, and the staccato fourth notes in the Trio are rather broad, portato.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’36”; 1/2 = 136 / 156
They slow down significantly for some of the intermezzi, making them almost elegiac (in compensation for the lack of a slow movement?) — I doubt that this was the composer’s intent!

Recommendation: Not really.
Rating: 2.5 (3 / 2 / 2 / 3)

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 ma non tanto

7’28”; 1/4 = 136
Compared to the Guarneri String Quartet, the vibrato sounds more natural and moderate; the articulation is often a bit soft in this movement.

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

9’09”; 1/8 = 144
Same tempo as Guarneri Quartet, articulation also quite handsome, but with more differentiation; more careful dynamically.

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

4’19”; 1/4 = 160 / 160 / 174
The tempo is OK, maybe at the lower limit, the Trio keeps the tempo of the Menuetto. The articulation is somewhat rough.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’29”; 1/2 = 128 / 156
Mostly OK, the articulation in the staccati is rather rough.

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

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

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro ma non tanto

8’25”; 1/4 = 140
To me, this is not clearly articulated, lacking transparency, and there’s a strange acceleration across the main theme which sounds like lack of tempo control — but it’s done consciously, as it’s the same in the repetition, as well as in the recapitulation. Also, the have decided to use a portamento in the jump to the highest note in the main theme — but that’s so strong, it’s rather a glissando — and completely inappropriate, I think.

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

6’41”; 1/8 = 156
Mostly OK, though sometimes a bit “pushy”, the articulation is often rough (especially with the Cello), the intonation marginal on some short notes.

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

4’19”; 1/4 = 168 / 162 / 184
This is somewhat heavy (not dance-like), slow, with broad articulation (too much legato for my taste), the accents are fairly weak, “washed out”.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’13”; 1/2 = 136 / 168
Some odd, seemingly arbitrary tempo variations (accelerandi) — lack of control? These accelerandi may “work” in a live performance — but (if they are done on purpose) at the “distance” of a CD recording, they are not convincing, to say the least. In the Prestissimo, the articulation is superficial, especially in the first violin (on the other hand, those four very exposed peak notes just prior to the ending are clean here, while many other artists fail on these).

Recommendation: No, I’m afraid.
Rating: 2.8 (3 / 3 / 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
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 ma non tanto

8’09”; 1/4 = 160
For me, this feels too fast and always pushing forward, lacking agogic differentiation — and way too smooth, the melody too soft. Sure, it’s played with perfection, technically — but mere speed doesn’t win an award in a movement in C minor by Beethoven, where the mood overall is serious. I dislike those prominent portamenti in the first violin, apparently introduced with the intent to draw the focus onto certain moments in a melody.

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

7’01”; 1/8 = 160
One of their better movements so far: transparent, good articulation, light; excess vibrato in the first violin at times.

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’22”; 1/4 = 234 / 180 / 244
With all due respect for the technical abilities of the Emerson String Quartet: this is very fast, and it feels too fast. For my feeling this is faster than allegretto, definitely, and the movement lacks drama / emotion.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’13”; 1/2 = 144 / 172
Clean, technically OK, but too smooth, lacking drama and emotions. The Allegro is too fast, feels like a Presto.

Recommendation: No.
Rating: 3.2 (3 / 4 / 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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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 ma non tanto

8’38”; 1/4 = 146
A good interpretation: the dynamics are observed very accurately, the sound is nicely balanced and transparent, exhibiting the polyphony in this movement. I’m not sure, though, why they accelerate those sequences of quarter-note chords in the exposition and at the end of the development part (with the latter, they end up at around 1/4 = 160)?

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

6’59”; 1/8 = 160
Same tempo as Emerson String Quartet, but rhythmically much more lively, good articulation, follows the dynamic notation, but never dogmatic or dry; colorful, covering a wide range of articulation, almost up to sul ponticello!

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’37”; 1/4 = 196 / 196 / 220
They start off as fast as the Amadeus Quartet in the da capo, keep that tempo for the Trio, then jump to 1/4=220; technically no problem at all, clear, accurate in the dynamics, light, yet dramatic!

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’18”; 1/2 = 140 / 166
Unlike the Guarneri String Quartet, they keep the tempo in the Allegro part, vivid, virtuoso (especially in the Prestissimo), rhythmically accurate and detailed. Too bad the five solo quarters on c”” in the first violin (just before the ending) are a tad too low!

Recommendation: Certainly more than just OK for their time!
Rating: 4.2 (4 / 5 / 4 / 4)

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

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro ma non tanto

7’36”; 1/4 = 170
Clearly the fastest interpretation (faster than the Emerson String Quartet) — but they retain full control, transparency, lightness in the articulation; it’s all clean, technically perfect — and dramatic, simply excellent: I don’t feel pushed when listening to this interpretation! OK, one may claim that for an Allegro ma non tanto in 4/4 is is perhaps too fast (rather a Presto!) — but they would probably argue that apart from the 4/4 annotation, major parts of the notation look like / point towards alla breve (2/2) — e.g., the many bars with two groups of four quavers in the accompaniment. And taken as alla breve, this tempo makes perfect sense!

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

5’01” (first part not repeated); 1/8 = 160
Very nicely and carefully articulated, detailed, accurate, yet playful — excellent, overall! I like their true ppp! The only negative comment I have here is that they don’t repeat the first part — but given the listening pleasure in this movement, I can’t “punish” them with a bad rating for this.

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’06”; 1/4 = 250 / 186 / 270
The Allegro is very fast (Presto rather than Allegro) — actually, with one exception (Artemis Quartet and their own, of course), this is faster than any of the Più Allegro repeats of all other ensembles in this comparison; but it’s played perfectly. To me, it’s a little too smooth, too elegant: the syncopes could be played with more emphasis at a slower tempo. The Più Allegro repetition is played at the same tempo as with the Artemis Quartet — but the latter retains much more tension, presence, and drama.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’23”; 1/2 = 128 / 164
Good tempo in the Allegro (not Presto!). While Artemis Quartet and Quatuor Mosaïques focus on drama and expression, the Hagen Quartett broadens the spectrum of expression by having both introverted (I like their p / pp!) as well as expressive / dramatic parts. The articulation is excellent, detailed and accurate.

Recommendation: A very good, recommended interpretation overall!
Rating: 4.8 (5 / 5 / 4 / 5)

Artemis Quartet (2008)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/4 & 59/2, Artemis Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/4, 59/2

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 009463 80268 2 2 (stereo); ℗ / © 2008
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/4 & 59/2, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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spacerRecorded in 2008, with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge. The ensemble has just finished recording all Beethoven string quartets — op.18/4 and op.59/2 were recorded 2008. In this series (timewise), this is the first recording with Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigele as members, after Heime Müller and Volker Jacobsen — see op.18/2 — left the ensemble for family and health reasons. So far, I have rated the recording in this new composition slightly better than op.18/2 — we’ll have a clearer picture in the end!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro ma non tanto

8’23”; 1/4 = 154
I like their agogics: tempo variations are not caused by the artists getting carried away, but obviously the result of conscious decision / interpretation; I like those little ritardandi to indicate the end of a phrase, etc.; it’s a fast performance, but all very well controlled, both technically and musically. Also, they don’t unnecessarily promote the first violin, as this is already done in the composition — see the comment about the Emerson String Quartet. There are some portamenti, but (unlike with the Emerson String Quartet) these are never prominent, but rather a “natural way of switching left-hand position over a large interval” — no objections here!

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

7’06”; 1/8 = 154
Good tempo and articulation, very differentiated in articulation and dynamics; they do a lot with agogics (looks almost like their characteristic!) — excellent!

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’51”; 1/4 = 234 / 180 / 270
Interesting: in the first pass of the Menuetto they use exactly the same tempo as the Emerson String Quartet — but it does not feel that fast: there isn’t that constant push forward, one doesn’t feel chased, they still manage to pay attention to detail, phrasing, articulation, emotion. Also in the Trio they use exactly the same tempo as the Emerson String Quartet (substantially slower than the Menuetto), the intonation is impeccable, and so is the articulation. In the da capo the tempo is almost breathtaking: 1/4=270 — but still under full control, congrats! Beethoven just wrote “più allegro, but not how much faster… anyway, the piece isn’t shorter because of this tempo, as the Artemis Quartet does both repeats also in the da capo part.

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’26”; 1/2 = 136 / 170
Technically absolutely superb, almost perfect, the Prestissimo extremely fast, even accelerando — yet with all the details, the emotion, the drama in this movement! One needs a magnifying glass to find anything to criticize here: may be the somewhat shaky, hesitant re-entry of the second violin, after the first violin’s dramatic arpeggiando and the fermata in the middle of the movement… most listeners wouldn’t even notice this!

Recommendation: Yes!
Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 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
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spacerRecorded in 2004, with Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin — for general comments and CD information see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro ma non tanto

9’05”; 1/4 = 140
A very detailed performance at a moderate tempo (after all, it’s Allegro ma non tanto!); I like that percussive articulation, especially in the Cello!

2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

7’08”; 1/8 = 152
The only comment I have here is that they combine the best aspects of the interpretations by the Melos Quartett and of the Artemis Quartet — and on top of that they add the beautiful colors and expressivity of the period instruments!

3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

3’57”; 1/4 = 180 / 162 / 196
Immediately after the Menuetto by the Artemis Quartet this feels “extremely slow” — however, in the context of the other movements by the same artists, the tempo is “right” for an allegretto, and, after all, it’s faster than with the Quartetto Italiano and the Guarneri String Quartet!

4. Allegro — Prestissimo

4’37”; 1/2 = 132 / 160
More moderate in the tempo compared to Artemis Quartet, Melos Quartett and others — but still perfectly adequate, technically clean, very good articulation, as always; here’s the first time I noticed the staccato half notes in the Prestissimo part!

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

Addendum:

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

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


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