Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in B♭ major, op.18/6

Media Review / Comparison


2011-12-13 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-18 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet added
2013-08-06 — 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 note #6 on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in B♭ major, op.18/6 — 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 B♭ major, op.18/6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro con brio (alla breve, 2/2)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.1, score sampleThis is a sonata movement with alla breve notation — however, it is clearly impossible to play two beats per bar as a true allegro con brio (which would imply something like 1/2 = 100 – 120). Only the Artemis Quartet follows the repetition marks around the evolution / recapitulation part, see below.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (2/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.2, score sampleAn adagio based on 1/4 beats would hardly be playable, with all the ornaments in this movement, the tempo in use here is between 1/8=42 and 1/8=49.

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

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.3, score sample, ScherzoBeethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.3, score sample, TrioA typical Beethoven Scherzo, with lots of “syncope jokes”, making it hard for the unexperienced listener to follow the beat!

4. La Malinconia: Adagio (2/4) — Allegretto quasi Allegro (3/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.4, score sample, AdagioBeethoven, string quartet op.18/6, mvt.4, score sample, AllegrettoThis movement bears an interesting instruction by Beethoven: “Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza” — to be played with the greatest possible care / refinement; and then, there is a title “La Malinconia” — the melancholy. Some ensembles seem to assume that this applies to the slow initial part only, making the 3/8 Allegretto quasi Allegro sound almost like a fast dance movement, i.e., taking the slow part (and “malinconia”) for “depressive”, and the “dance” part for “manic” — I’m not sure it’s that simple, as the “depressive” part returns for two short intermezzi in the Allegretto quasi Allegro part, and that Allegretto is not entirely joyful (except maybe for the last few prestissimo bars), see the interpretation by the Quatuor Mosaïques!

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.18/6, comparison, M.M. table

My 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 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
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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 con brio

4’30” (exposition not repeated); 1/2 = 128
The articulation is often rushed, sometimes careless and superficial. p and pp are too loud.

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’36”; 1/8 = 42
The start is supposed to be piano — I hear forte, at least in the solo in the first violin! It’s all a bit static and stiff, no “elasticity”, the tone often very rigid; where are the emotions?

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’24”; 1/4 = 165 — 1/4 = 165 (Trio)
Too serious, rigid for a Scherzo, the articulation is rough, coarse. The Trio is taken at the same tempo as the Scherzo part.

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’37”; 1/8 = 56 — 3/8 = 70
The triple-acciaccaturas in the Adagio in the first violin are all the same and too schematic, the articulation fairly harsh; for my feeling, the tempo changes for the two adagio inserts within the allegretto are not very conclusive / compelling.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.0 (2 / 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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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 con brio

6’04”; 1/2 = 134
The coordination is sometimes marginal, the articulation often unclear / fuzzy; worse than that, their tempo concept is real weird, in that the second theme is taken so much slower that the flow is completely disrupted, and returning to the beginning for the repetition causes some contortions. Don’t like it.

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’13”; 1/8 = 49
OK — though some ornaments feel a bit rushed, the tempo is often a bit (too much) pushing forward — maybe the tempo is slightly too fast? The tempo is supposed to be Adagio ma non troppo — but does this imply “pushy”?

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’19”; 1/4 = 174 — 1/4 = 150 (Trio)
The articulation is fairly heavy, and there are some instabilities in the tempo. The Trio is taken fairly slow, making it too serious.

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’46”; 1/8 = 50 — 3/8 = 61
Adagio: too much vibrato, otherwise OK; the tempo in the Allegretto is at the lower limit.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.3 (1 / 3 / 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 con brio

6’30”; 1/2 = 120
OK — the articulation is sometimes a bit noisy.

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’33”; 1/8 = 45
They are slightly faster than Amadeus & Melos, use a soft articulation — what I dislike is a slight unrest, caused by both their agogics and their articulation in the ornaments.

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’28”; 1/4 = 165 — 1/4 = 153 (Trio)
Too serious for a Scherzo — the Trio is slightly better.

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

10’09”; 1/8 = 38 — 3/8 = 63
This is 4/8, not 2/4 in the Adagio — that tempo is way too slow, totally over-stretching the melodies beyond recognition. The articulation is pretty rough. There are plenty of emotions in the slow part: every single note tells a story — but a very, very slow one! “The slower, the better” does not work here, and in my opinion is not Beethoven’s intent: adagio means “calm”, not “slow” — even when ignoring the 2/4 notation!

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.5 (3 / 3 / 2 / 2)

Endellion String Quartet (2007)

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

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

9’10” (both parts repeated); 1/2 = 128
The articulation is detailed, OK, but mostly rather heavy; concentrates on small scale articulation — missing focus on mid- and large scale phrasing, the accompaniment is often a bit mechanic. Doing both repeats makes this piece more demanding: the lack of large scale phrasing causes the movement to fall apart. Why not lighter, and maybe slightly faster?

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’06”; 1/8 = 46
The dynamics could sometimes be a bit wider: sometimes it’s merely pmf; sometimes I feel a slight unrest, and similar to the first movement, there could be more mid- and large scale phrasing.

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’14”; 1/4 = 180 — 1/4 = 160 (Trio)
Relatively fast — to the point where articulation, clarity / transparency start to suffer: not all members can maintain that tempo at all times. Should be lighter (less legato), wittier!

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’08”; 1/8 = 56 — 3/8 = 69
There are some attempts to limit the vibrato, but in general the movement could be more expressive, could use more agogics.

Recommendation: OK, not much more
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 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 con brio

5’52”; 1/2 = 136
One of their better movements: light, playful, fast, virtuoso, accurate & transparent. Their tempo concept is similar to the one of the Guarneri String Quartet — but discreet, almost unnoticeable, without major ruptures.

2. Adagio ma non troppo

6’52”; 1/8 = 48
OK — the start is slightly too fast, but they slow down after a while. Too many portamenti and way too much vibrato — but I quite like the playful section prior to the Coda, with the syncopated accompaniment.

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’00”; 1/4 = 190 — 1/4 = 180 (Trio)
Fast, virtuoso, but too smooth; there’s no time for the listener to “fall into” or enjoy the syncopes, nor is there time for any wittiness: it’s all rushed; this is also true for the Trio, which for sure is too fast.

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’16”; 1/8 = 56 — 3/8 = 68
The Adagio part definitely feels like 4/8, is too smooth, without tension, without emotions; the Allegretto part is better, though.

Recommendation: No, unless you want to hear an ensemble break speed records…
Rating: 3.0 (4 / 3 / 3 / 2)

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 con brio

5’51”; 1/2 = 136
Pretty close to the Emerson String Quartet in the agogics, but with more “substance”, more dramatic, more expression, but equally transparent & virtuoso.

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’15”; 1/8 = 42
I listened to this after the recording by the Amadeus Quartet: the Melos Quartett is way better, with a softer, more emotional tone (OK, the vibrato…); the tempo is the same as with the Amadeus Quartet, but central part of the movement is slightly more fluent.

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’21”; 1/4 = 168 — 1/4 = 168 (Trio)
Light, witty, with the tempo kept for both parts — a good interpretation!

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’15”; 1/8 = 56 — 3/8 = 75
The Adagio part is very expressive — one can very well feel the growing tension towards the end of the Adagio part; the triple acciaccaturas are not all done the same way (as with the Amadeus Quartet); also the Allegretto part is expressive — a good interpretation overall!

Recommendation: A good, through more traditional interpretation.
Rating: 4.0 (4 / 4 / 4 / 4)

Quatuor Mosaïques (1994)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/5 & 18/6, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD coverBeethoven, 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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spacerRecorded in 1994, with Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin — for general comments and CD information see op.18/5.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

7’06”; 1/2 = 112
A very careful, detailed, “rich” interpretation, as usual with this ensemble, exposing all the drama in this movement — however, this time I can’t agree with their choice of tempo: there are some / a few sections in the evolution part where the tempo feels “right”, but for most parts this (for me) is too slow, even if we ignore the alla breve notation. This is definitely not Allegro con brio, but maybe “andante”, almost “senza brio“, and the second theme almost feels like adagio!

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’34”; 1/8 = 43
Very good, though entirely different in atmosphere than with the Artemis Quartet: their tempo is a tad faster than with the latter — but that’s not the main difference: here, suddenly one feels a movement that is loaded with a microcosm of emotions, pictures, feelings — there are moments of loneliness, drama, menace, then being lost, desperation…

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

3’21”; 1/4 = 165 — 1/4 = 165 (Trio)
The tempo is kept the same for both parts, and it is actually the same tempo as used by the Amadeus Quartet — however, this time with plenty of detail in articulation, phrasing, etc.: same tempo, but a different world!

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

8’21”; 1/8 = 58 — 3/8 = 65
Similar to the interpretation by the Artemis Quartet (see below), there is a strong emotional coupling between the Adagio and the Allegretto parts, though the two interpretations differ in tone and intensity: here, the Allegretto part is more hesitant, retains feelings of anxiety, fear, given the threat in the preceding Adagio. Both interpretations are very intense and emotional, and equally valid!

Recommendation: Yes!
Rating: 4.8 (4 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Artemis Quartet (2009)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/6, 130 & 133, Artemis Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/6, 130, 133;

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 69458 0 8 (stereo); ℗ / © 2010
Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/6, 130 & 133, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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spacerThe Artemis Quartet (here with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, and Eckart Runge) has just finished recording all Beethoven string quartets — op.18/6, op.130, and op.133 were recorded in 2009. This is the second CD with Beethoven quartets by the Artemis quartet with Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigele as new members (the switch happened in 2006), presenting the quartet at the height of their abilities: undoubtedly, this currently is one of the best string quartets!

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro con brio

8’38” (both parts repeated); 1/2 = 140
Fast, virtuoso, accurate in dynamics and articulation, very transparent, technically perfect! As in op.18/5, there are again some syncopated sforzati where they do a minute ritardando to give it enough time and additional emphasis; and again there is their “watermark”, the conscious use of agogics — almost too elaborate (close to “intellectual” / the upper limit!). As Beethoven noted repetition marks also for the second part, they do both repetitions, as already with the last movement in op.18/5 (for my feeling, from the point-of-view of the composition this is slightly less conclusive / compelling than in op.18/5).

2. Adagio ma non troppo

7’43”; 1/8 = 42
This is calm, and very nicely played; one can feel the 2/4 rhythm, and they keep a constant beat for the entire bars, using agogics within the bars mainly (slowing down on the heavy beats, taking the lighter beats slightly faster). Very transparent, showing the dialogs in the accompanying voices.

3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

4’00” (da capo with repetitions); 1/4 = 186 — 1/4 = 160 (Trio)
The Scherzo part is slightly slower than with the Emerson String Quartet — however, they find the time (and have the technical skills) to present all the “jokes” that Beethoven built into this movement. The >Trio> would “not work” at a pace of 1/4=186 — they slow down to 1/4=160. Interestingly, the only noticeable “speed switch” is when returning from the >Trio> to the >Scherzo da capo>: the repetition of the second part of the >Scherzo> is taken slightly slower, such that the tempo change to the >Trio> is seamless. Note that both repetitions in the >Scherzo> are also played in the >da capo>.>

4. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

3’22” + 4’32”; 1/8 = 56 — 3/8 = 76
A very careful and detailed, considerate and expressive interpretation where one can indeed sense the 2/4 beat! One detail: in bars 13 and 15 the second violin has a triple acciaccatura at the beginning of a full-bar chord. The other 3 instruments only fall into this chord after the acciaccatura, which makes a much stronger effect than if the emphasizing ornament falls into the chord. About the emotions in this movement: here, it’s more than just tension building up over the Adagio: I sense a growing menace from a relatively serene start up to the Allegretto. The Allegretto quasi Allegro then receiving a careful, accurate interpretation — excellent!

As mentioned previously, the Allegretto part is not just joyful, but here it clearly is a reaction to the threatening situation in the Adagio — it can be seen as anger, defiance, courage, and the Adagio inserts are strong reminiscences of the preceding menace.

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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