Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in A major, op.18/5

Media Review / Comparison


2011-12-08 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-17 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet added
2013-08-06 — New standard layout applied
2013-10-05 — New recording by the Hagen Quartett added
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-08 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction / The Recordings

This is the fifth note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in A major, op.18/5 — 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 A major, op.18/5 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro (6/8)

“By the book” (unwritten, though), the tempo in 6/8 notation should be based on 3/8 units — however, with this, a true allegro would be so fast that the fast 1/16 passages would hardly be playable, or at least it is hard to have them retain some sound, let alone when played using period instruments and bows. As some of the newer interpretations below indicate, it is much better to take the 1/16 notes as base — this gives enough “room” for the ornaments and the dramatic aspects of this movement.

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/5, mvt.1, score sample

Repetitions are usually not a major point of discussion: the consensus largely is that in sonata movements the exposition is repeated, while the development and recapitulation parts are not. Most ensembles / artists follow this practice, which is also what the notation typically indicates. In the early classical period (based on baroque and pre-classical practice), the notation sometimes also indicated a repetition of the development/recapitulation part — but as the development part became bigger and bigger, this turned into “traditional formalism” that was probably less and less observed by artists.

In the preceding four quartets, the notation only had repetition marks for the exposition (which is followed by all ensembles, excepting the Amadeus Quartet). Here, however, the development/recapitulation part also has repetition marks, with a dedicated transition bar for the first round: I can’t imagine Beethoven just did that because he felt compelled to do so to comply with tradition! Only the Artemis Quartet and the Endellion String Quartet play this second repetition.

2. Menuetto (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

The only “tempo statement” with this movement is “Menuetto”, i.e., a traditional dance. This means, the movement should be played in “tempo di minuetto”, which apparently did not require further specification in the late 18th century. Now, over 200 years later, it is impossible to know what people at that time felt to be the proper tempo for such a dance — however, I think it is fair to assume that the tempo should be such that it could be danced to, i.e., not very slow, not very fast… For me, dance music implies some kind of “swing”, a certain elegance, elasticity in the tempo — and a beat that persists through the movement; see below for more on this.

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/5, mvt.2, score sample, Menuetto
Beethoven, string quartet op.18/5, mvt.2, score sample, Trio

3. Andante cantabile (2/4)

The range of tempo in this movement (in the interpretations discussed here) is between 1/4 = 40 and 1/4 = 52 — depending on whether one lays the focus on “andante” or on the “cantabile”. It’s a theme with 5 variations and a Coda — which requires balancing diversity vs. bracketing / entity (e.g., whether to vary the tempo, or rather to retain a close relationship with the theme, throughout the movement); unlike in baroque times, the theme is not repeated at the end — but the Coda does provide a link back to the original theme.

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/5, mvt.3, score sample

4. Allegro (alla breve, 2/2)

Another example of a quartet with a last movement using the sonata form: an allegro, but in alla breve notation, meaning that the eighths are rather fast — too fast to be played spiccato: the staccato dots probably just mean non-legato? The alla breve bears the danger of the sections with those staccato eighths sounding like a rushed presto; the Quatuor Mosaïques avoids this by breaking off from the mold, see below!

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/5, 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.18/5, comparison, M.M. table

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 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

4’50” (no repeatitions); 3/8 = 96
Rather coarse, 1/16 notes are rough, often not quite clean, rushed, lacking sonority.

2. Menuetto — Trio

4’55”; 1/4 = 168 / 156 (Trio)
The tempo is better than with the Guarneri String Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano — but the music still does not sound / feel dance-like. What irritates me is that there is a consistent accelerando with all chains of eighths, which for me is not compliant with dance music: one may hold back the tempo a bit at the beginning of a phrase, just to gain momentum again immediately thereafter (in the sense of a “rubato”), such that overall the beat (say, of entire bars) goes through. I like the Trio better here, even though it also has a tendency to accelerate.

3. Andante cantabile

10’16”; 1/4 = 44 (theme)
The beginning is OK, albeit a bit stiff (variation 1); in the first two variations the first violin is much too dominating — unnecessarily, as that voice is privileged already. In variation 3 the balance is much better than with the Quartetto Italiano — but then, variation 4 is just clumsy, too loud, even noisy…

4. Allegro

5’01” (exposition not repeated); 1/2 = 132
Harsh, not careful in the articulation, not transparent enough, the eighths are often rushed; overall, this often sounds like four warriors fighting each other arduously! The exposition is not repeated, in line with what they do in other sonata movements.

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.2 (2 / 3 / 2 / 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

6’43”; 3/8 = 98
Slightly faster than Amadeus Quartet, Guarneri String Quartet, Melos Quartett — but that feels like being their tempo limit; it’s likely because of the tempo that some parts receive a very soft articulation, sometimes there appear to be unwanted tempo variations (losing control?), fast parts sound somewhat rushed. On the positive side: I like the percussive articulation in the cello!

2. Menuetto — Trio

5’24”; 1/4 = 156 / 138 (Trio)
Not quite as slow as the Guarneri String Quartet, but still slow, fairly heavy / resting. In the sections with chains of eighths the tempo gets slightly faster, as if they weren’t able to hold the slow tempo. The syncopated accents in the Trio are too soft, “fluffy”.

3. Andante cantabile

10’59”; 1/4 = 42 (theme)
OK, expressive, but not their best interpretation; in variation 3, the accompaniment is way too loud, covering the melody. Some minor perturbations in the intonation.

4. Allegro

6’42”; 1/2 = 128
Virtuoso, but could be more transparent, and the syncopes could be more pronounced.

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.8 (3 / 2 / 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

7’01”; 3/8 = 94
The articulation is not very careful; why do I need to listen to David Soyer’s moaning?

2. Menuetto — Trio

6’04”; 1/4 = 147 / 123 (Trio)
For me, this is definitely too slow for a Menuetto — clumsy, not a trace of “dance feeling”! Too much vibrato.

3. Andante cantabile

10’15”; 1/4 = 46 (theme)
One of their best movements so far, very nicely balanced; I also like the sixth parallels between the two violins in the theme. The vibrato they use doesn’t really hurt in this movement.

4. Allegro

6’36”; 1/2 = 134
The articulation is a bit on the soft side, causing the clarity & transparency to suffer; the syncopes in the exposition are rushed. And again we need listen to David Soyer’s moaning — if just it was in tune with the music!!

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.8 (3 / 2 / 4 / 2)

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

6’18”; 3/8 = 104
Technically perfect, very fast, but keeping good articulation even in rapid 1/16 passages — however: way too smooth, lacking expression, lacking articulation in short phrases; colorless overall, lacking emotion.

2. Menuetto — Trio

4’57”; 1/4 = 174 / 160 (Trio)
Fast, but much too smooth, linear — does not evoke any dance feeling. Don’t follow the dynamic notation, especially in the Trio.

3. Andante cantabile

8’56”; 1/4 = 52 (theme)
One could say that they are focusing on making this movement appear as unity: the focus is on continuity rather than diversification (with variation 5 standing out, though) — is that the right choice in a variation movement? The sound balance is good, so is the clarity & transparency. Two things I don’t quite like here: at least up to variation 4, the interpretation overall is rather harm- and colorless, maybe guarded, reserved, neutral; then, even though in absolute terms the tempo is moderate (if counted in 1/4, i.e., half-bars), it feels restless, rather allegretto than andante cantabile.

4. Allegro

6’21”; 1/2 = 140
Technically astounding, very fast — but in the end it is merely a presto-hunting through this movement, without time for details, dialogue, let alone emotions: not really convincing!

Recommendation:No
Rating:3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Endellion String Quartet (2007)

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

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

9’05” (both parts repeated); 3/8 = 102
Very fast — almost as fast as the Emerson String Quartet, but unfortunately not nearly as perfect, technically: I think it’s the fast tempo which leads to a “spongy”, often superficial (i.e., not always careful) articulation, and there are also some rushed passages. On top of that, the sound management makes this sound like played through a curtain. On the bright side: together with the Artemis Quartet they are the only ones doing both repetitions.

2. Menuetto — Trio

5’00”; 1/4 = 170 / 144 (Trio)
In general, a good tempo (with some slight ritardandi, though), light articulation; in the Trio they use a distinctly slower tempo, at the limit of being a bit heavy for a “dance movement”.

3. Andante cantabile

9’04”; 1/4 = 51
A good tempo, though at the upper limit, as it feels on the fringe of being a bit restless, especially in the more lively variations — also, the articulation of fast notes & ornaments starts to suffer, is a bit superficial. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that they use very little vibrato in this movement.

4. Allegro

6’24”; 1/2 = 136
There are some (few) nice details in this movement, but overall it appears fast, the articulation is sometimes a bit rough, could be sharper. Also, the dull sound management does not help the transparency.

Recommendation:Not really, except maybe for the slow movement.
Rating:3.2 (3 / 3 / 4 / 3)

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

6’45”; 3/8 = 96
The ornaments at the beginning are very nicely articulated, with the accent on the main note; good, conventional interpretation (the best of those!)

2. Menuetto — Trio

5’11”; 1/4 = 162 / 144 (Trio)
They are not much faster than the Quartetto Italiano — this now feels like a dance: a good interpretation, though (like with others) there is a slight tendency to accelerate chains of eighths, and the vibrato of the first violin is a bit on the strong side. The Trio is somewhat heavy.

3. Andante cantabile

9’48”; 1/4 = 44 (theme)
A very good interpretation overall — with more focus on transparency and clarity (e.g., compared to the Guarneri String Quartet). In the theme, the first violin is dominating a bit too much (especially with Wilhelm Melcher’s dense vibrato). The first variation feels like an allegretto — but I think it is legitimate to vary the tempo and the character within a set of variations.

4. Allegro

6’41”; 1/2 = 136
Virtuosic, fast, but still with transparency, accurate in the dynamic proportions, rhythmic — good, but doesn’t come near the Artemis Quartet…

Recommendation:OK
Rating:3.5 (4 / 3 / 4 / 3)

Artemis Quartet (2011)

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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Recorded in 2011, with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge — for general comments and CD information see op.18/3.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

10’24” (both parts repeated); 3/8 = 84
What a contrast to the interpretation by the Emerson String Quartet! They take a slower tempo (slower than all traditional interpretations), thinking in eighths rather than 3/8 units, they pay attention to phrasing details, use clear articulation without losing the focus on the overall structure. And of course there’s their “watermark”, the conscious, distinct use of agogics throughout the movement — more would be too much, though: ideally, such means should remain unnoticed to the average user; if tempo changes are too obvious, then (in the listener’s mind) an interpretation can turn into a teaching exercise / lesson, which may turn people off! One interesting point about this interpretation is that they do both repetitions, see the note above. Very nice!

2. Menuetto — Trio

4’48”; 1/4 = 180 / 150 (Trio)
This is a dance movement, also in the Trio — excellent! The only minor point of criticism I have here: agogics are OK, also in a dance movement — though I’d prefer some beat going through, even with “local variations” — in that sense, I don’t see a justification for the sections with eighths chains having a noticeably faster tempo. At least, it’s not an accelerando as with some of the other interpretations, but clearly a deliberate choice.

3. Andante cantabile

9’37”; 1/4 = 50 (theme)
I have little to say here: this certainly is an excellent performance — about as good as it can get on modern instruments: transparency, balance, clarity, articulation, detail, phrasing — what more could one wish for? OK, less vibrato in the theme and the slower sections would help a lot; also, the variations tend to “fall apart”, i.e., there could be more continuity in the movement, less disruptive transitions between the variations. Still, I should point out the tender, sensitive interpretation of variation 4: very nice!

4. Allegro

6’14”; 1/2 = 140
As fast as the Emerson String Quartet, but a careful interpretation nevertheless: despite the speed they don’t miss out on the details, articulation, dynamics (note that most parts of the movement are piano!). The ending phrase in the exposition is even faster than the rest! A little detail: occasionally, they take their time to hold back emphasized notes for a split second — very nice!

Recommendation:Yes, one of the best “modern” interpretations I know.
Rating:4.8 (5 / 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. As this recording was added “in the aftermath”, I only did a partial comparison (with the Melos Quartett, the Artemis Quartet, and the Quatuor Mosaïques).

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

7’11”; 3/8 = 94
Much less vibrato than the Melos Quartett (luckily!), and a more “natural”, more “vocal” phrasing, much more detailed in the articulation and the expression, more differentiation between the two themes — and they also allow for intimate moments. Compared to the Artemis Quartet, they use (even!) more agogics, especially on smaller scales, their interpretation is more playful, less “intellectual”. On top of all this, the Hagen Quartett has no need to demonstrate perfection in coordination, or virtuosity: once the listener is “in” this interpretation, it all feels totally natural.

2. Menuetto — Trio

4’43”; 1/4 = 210 / 114 (Trio)
Among all the interpretations discussed here, this is clearly the fastest Menuetto — almost like a fast Vienna waltz, very light, playful, yet singing, and full of expression, agogics, and even if the tempo may be debatable, I very much like this interpretation! In contrast, the Trio is by far the slowest among all interpretations (the Trio is at almost half the tempo of the Menuetto!), forming a sharp, extreme contrast, with heavy accents — yet not static, still feeling like a slow, melancholic dance, with a “hurdy-gurdy aspect” mixed in — excellent, overall, and definitely very special!

3. Andante cantabile

10’02”; 1/4 = 44 (theme)
In contrast to the Quatuor Mosaïques, they stick to the Andante (2/4) annotation, taking a relatively fluent tempo (faster than many others), though of course they still pay just as much (or more!) attention to every detail in the articulation and phrasing.

The faster tempo also helps “keeping these variations together”, and yet, the movement remains calm and lyrical overall, playful in the variations with smaller notes (e.g., variation 1). In variation 2, the first violin is both playful and lyrical / expressive, “narrative”, and still absolutely calm. In variation 3, the don’t let the melody be dominated by the demisemiquavers in the accompanying voices, the listener’s attention is drawn to the longing, expressive melody fragments. Over the entire movement, they use limited agogics (in order to to make the variations “fall apart”), and one feels a common basic pace and attitude throughout the movement. To me, this interpretation is an absolute masterpiece!

4. Allegro

6’37”; 1/2 = 148
In the last movement, the Hagen Quartett plays very fast (faster than all others in this comparison) — but to me, this is still perfectly adequate (provided the artists master the tempo, which they do, of course!), and it reflects the alla breve notation: it is joyful, playful, fun to listen to. In this movement, they return to very distinct agogics, especially for exposing the lyrical passages. As already in the first movement does not feel a need to focus on / expose their virtuosity or perfection, or razor-sharp staccati — their abilities are absolutely stunning, though they are “just” the basis for an absolutely extraordinary interpretation, with perfect balance between the voices!

Recommendation:Yes, definitely — my favorite interpretation (along with the one below, of course!).
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Quatuor Mosaïques (1994)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/5 & 18/6, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets op.18/5 & 18/6

Quatuor Mosaïques

naïve E 8901 (stereo); ℗ 1994 / © 2005

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/5 & 18/6, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD, UPC-A barcode
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This is the third CD covering Beethoven’s op.18 by the Quatuor Mosaïques (Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin), featuring op.18/5 and op.18/6, recorded in 1994, on period instruments.

Perhaps more than with the other quartets (as discussed so far), this interpretation is hard to appreciate if juxtaposed with a modern interpretation: the slow tempi chosen here are absolutely justified, but hard to understand in the context of conventional interpretations, and particularly when isolating single movements — you got to free yourself first from the expectations based on these “other” interpretations!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

7’49”; 3/8 = 75
This is like the equivalent of the interpretation by the Artemis Quartet, “translated” to historically informed playing: the tempo is even slower, adapted to the possibilities with period instruments (when listening to this right after a conventional interpretation, the tempo seems unbearably slow — at a “distance”, however, this is not an issue at all!). The Quatuor Mosaïques also uses agogics, but in a more discreet fashion; on the other hand, their interpretation shows more of the dramatic aspects / moments. They take their time for emphasized notes, for accents and ornaments. Excellent!

2. Menuetto — Trio

5’04”; 1/4 = 168 / 156 (Trio)
An excellent interpretation, but at first (especially in comparison!) feels somewhat heavy, almost melancholic, even though the “absolute” tempo really isn’t that slow — but upon re-listening to this interpretation I realize that this is a proper tempo di minuetto: it’s just that they are really playing 3/4 rather than in entire bars! Excellent interpretation, on a second thought!

3. Andante cantabile

10’55”; 1/4 = 40 (theme)
Hearing this after the Artemis Quartet is a shock, at first (again!): the tempo appears extremely slow, and the lower pitch (a=415) adds to the surprise! Obviously, they decided to focus on the “cantabile” rather than the “andante” — and the result is a movement played in 4/8 rather than 2/4; however, after a while, the initial objection turns into pure pleasure, given the sound and the sonority of the period instruments. Even in the “fast” variations (i.e., those with the fast ornaments in the accompaniment) remain truly cantabile, nothing is rushed — after all, this is the slow movement in this quartet! And: I love Christophe Coin’s solid, sonorous foundation in Variation 5!

4. Allegro

7’54”; 1/2 = 110
One more movement not to be juxtaposed against another interpretation — or you need to listen to it twice in order to appreciate its richness in detail, articulation! This is no longer a fight between 4 parties, but a vivid dialog with emotions, diction / articulation — and it retains the allegro character (not alla breve, though!!).

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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