Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in F major, op.59/1, “Razumovsky I”

Media Review / Comparison


2012-01-16 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-24 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet and Hagen Quartett added
2013-08-06 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-08 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction / The Recordings

Here’s another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in F major, op.59/1 — 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 F major, op.59/1, “Razumovsky I”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro (4/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/1, mvt.1, score sample

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando (3/8)

In my view, the key issue here is not so much the tempo, but the scherzando: strangely enough, this movement is mostly written in minor keys, and that appears to lead some artists to play this piece in a desperate, tragic mood. I don’t think this was Beethoven’s intent — especially as he didn’t just write scherzando, but rather sempre scherzando, i.e., he definitely and explicitly wanted this to apply to the entire movement!

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/1, mvt.2, score sample

3. Adagio molto e mesto (2/4)

Another tempo challenge: the annotation states “very calm |not slow!] and sad”, and the movement is written in 2/4 measures. There are no other tempo annotations (apart from a single “poco rit.“, almost immediately followed by “a tempo“), but the movement uses smaller and smaller notes, ending in a cadenza consisting of six bars of 64th notes in the first violin. With this, most artists decide to play the movement extremely slowly — 1/4 = 20 or even slower. Such a tempo (three times slower than a typical heartbeat) can’t really be “felt” by the listener or the musician, hence commonly this piece is perceived as written in 4/8 measures.

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/1, mvt.3, score sample

That is more than an academic or esoteric question: at such a slow tempo, the fast notes in accompanying voices typically are played and perceived as melodic, whereas the actual melody moves “out of sight”, as it is stretched out so much. Just one out of the 7 contestants here — the Kuijken Quartet — manages to play this piece as written, i.e., in 2/4 measures, by taking a slightly faster tempo (1/4 = 25.5 on average), keeping the short notes playable, and at the same time keeping the overall character of the piece “calm” / adagio.

4. Thème russe: Allegro (2/4)

A true Beethoven piece! Witty, virtuosic, full of jokes and rhythmic intricacies — rather challenging for the artists, I presume!

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/1, 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. The metronome numbers given were evaluated by measuring the tempo near the beginning of a movement (once the tempo has stabilized), with the exception of the third movement (Adagio molto e mesto), where the number given is the calculated average over the entire movement.

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/1, comparison, M.M. table

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):


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:


Quartetto Italiano (1974)

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 1974, 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

11’41”; 1/4 = 148
Very relaxed, calm — but also lacks tension: at best, this feels like an Andante, if not an Adagio in alla breve measures! It’s expressive, but never eruptive — too tamed / controlled.

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

9’02”; 1/8 = 170
Quite well played, showing the grotesque aspects of this movement.

3. Adagio molto e mesto

13’09”; 1/8 = 40
Expressive, but very broad, accompaniment voices are not played (or perceived) as such — they are too melodic and prominent. Overall, the sound is very (too) dense and fairly uniform over the entire movement.

4. Thème russe: Allegro

6’39” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 114
The articulation is too broad, there are some inaccuracies — in particular, the rhythmic “switches” (e.g., at the end of the first part) are unclear / not precise, if not even incorrect.

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

Endellion String Quartet (2008)

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 2008, with Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman — for general remarks see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

10’33”; 1/4 = 168
My main criticism here is their overly soft articulation and tone (even with some staccati!), the sometimes “airy” sound, the lack of drama and transparency. OK, the intonation is clean…

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’35”; 1/8 = 168
Incoherent articulation: the cello plays with “excess rosin” / “sticky bow”, percussive, sometimes sul ponticello and/or more noise than tone. This may be OK as a “scherzo gag” — however, the other players, don’t follow, as if they could not reach an agreement on how to articulate this movement! The tempo is good, but the articulation is not always quite accurate or clear (their soft articulation again?), and some of the general breaks lose tension, are slightly disruptive.

3. Adagio molto e mesto

12’10”; 1/8 = 43
Often/largely contour less, too soft, “sound soup”, lacking transparency, melody vs. accompaniment (the dynamic concept in general) is often unclear, the rhythmic structure (let alone the 2/4 measure) is not audible / perceivable.

4. Thème russe: Allegro

8’22”; 1/4 = 114
OK in general, though sometimes (e.g., with the rhythmic switches at the end of the exposition) a bit clumsy; could use more dynamic differentiation. Sometimes one gets the impression as if the artists were preoccupied with the technical difficulties in this demanding movement?

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

Guarneri String Quartet (1991)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets op. 59

Guarneri String Quartet

Philips 432 980-2 (stereo, 2 CD); ℗ / © 1995

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1991, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer. Some 25 years after their first Beethoven series, the Guarneri String Quartet recorded Beethoven’s quartet oeuvre again. For additional, general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

11’25”; 1/4 = 156
Over 25 years, there was a very slight reduction in the tempo (much better than with the Quartetto Italiano, but it still is not an Allegro). The tone has become more dense, but lost transparency compared to the earlier recording. The articulation — especially in the cello part — is often not very careful (and the cellist started moaning while playing!). Expressive, but…

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

10’08”; 1/8 = 150
Well and carefully played — but where is the humor? Here, this movement sounds rather tragic, serious, even desperate at times — doesn’t quite fit Beethoven’s written intent, in my opinion (see above).

3. Adagio molto e mesto

12’01”; 1/8 = 44
Rather dense in sound, could sometimes be more transparent: the melody is often hiding among the other voices.

4. Thème russe: Allegro

6’15” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 118
Rhythmically better than the Quartetto Italiano or the Amadeus Quartet, though the articulation is rather broad, the sound fairly dense. As for the “rhythmic switches” (e.g., at the end of the first part): these are OK, though they omit the sf in the f-sf pair (this is done slightly better at the end of the movement).

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

Guarneri String Quartet (1966)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), CD cover

Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets, opp. 59, 74, 95

Guarneri String Quartet

RCA Victor / BMG Classics 60457-2 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 1990

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1966, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer. This is from their first recording of all Beethoven string quartets, two years after the ensemble was founded at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

10’58”; 1/4 = 160
The tempo is faster than with the Quartetto Italiano — and also a tad faster than the 1991 recording with the same ensemble, but still on the slow side. the recording technique sounds “older”, limiting the acoustic quality. Despite those restrictions I still sense that the ensemble sound is not as coherent as in their later recording, the sound is less “warm”, but more transparent. For my taste, there is too much focus on small phrases and therefore I’m missing the big structure in this interpretation.

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

9’40”; 1/8 = 158
Technically cleaner than their later recording, but not fundamentally different in the interpretation: where is the humor? I can maybe hear sarcasm, “tooth grinding humor”: Beethoven definitely did not have an easy life — but he did specify sempre scherzando …

3. Adagio molto e mesto

12’01”; 1/8 = 44
That movement is at least as good as in their 1991 recording!

4. Thème russe: Allegro

5’46” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 120
Fairly close to their 1991 recording, but slightly clearer and more transparent, more agile.

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

Amadeus Quartet (1959)

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

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Recorded in 1959, 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

10’05”; 1/4 = 168
I don’t like the sound, the articulation is coarse, but the dramatic concept / evolution is OK.

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’33”; 1/8 = 180
Virtuoso, accurate, but numerous rushed bars / segments.

3. Adagio molto e mesto

12’09”; 1/8 = 43
Expressive, transparent, but with an excess of vibrato; the first violin often dominates. The sound (recording and/or playing?) is rather marginal, as in their other recordings in this series.

4. Thème russe: Allegro

6’44” (repetition not done); 1/4 = 108
The articulation in this movement is mostly OK, albeit a bit heavy: in my opinion they lack the rhythmic agility required for this piece — in particular, the rhythmic “switches” (e.g., at the end of the first part) are rather clumsy.

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

Emerson String Quartet (1997)

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

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Recorded in 1997, 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

10’14”; 1/4 = 170
Both the sound and the interpretation are somewhat sterile; technically perfect, transparent, but too much vibrato. In terms of agogics, I hear mostly short accelerandi and rushing — the music deserves some ritenuti, too!

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’35”; 1/8 = 180
Virtuoso, witty, accurate, playful — scherzando: one of their better movements!

3. Adagio molto e mesto

11’40”; 1/8 = 45
This often sounds static, if not stiff. Phrasing etc. is OK in general — but there is way too much vibrato, which causes the impression that the emotions are merely put-on (quoting Joseph Joachim’s statement that vibrato is often (ab)used as a substitute for [lacking] emotions).

4. Thème russe: Allegro

7’17”; 1/4 = 124
Technically perfect, but lacking expression / emotion. This is among the faster interpretations — the tempo is not too fast per se, but somehow, there is this constant feeling of acceleration, pushing, making this sound like a Presto rather than Allegro.

Recommendation:OK, not the worst of their recordings, overall.
Rating:3.5 (3 / 4 / 3 / 4)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1984)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven: Die mittleren Streichquartette op.14/1, opp. 59, 74, 95

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

DG 415 342-1 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ 1985

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1984, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck: in their DGG series with all Beethoven string quartets, the middle quartets were released in 1985; for additional information see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

9’53”; 1/4 = 174
Dramatic, emotional, good tempo, also shows the big phrases / structures. The intonation isn’t always quite impeccable, and there is often a lot of vibrato (especially with the first violin).

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’32”; 1/8 = 180
Some staccati could be shorter, “sharper” — otherwise very good, virtuoso, expressive!

3. Adagio molto e mesto

13’18”; 1/8 = 39
As slow as the Quartetto Italiano, but more transparent, and much better in distinguishing between melody and accompaniment. Unfortunately with too much vibrato and portamento, and the intonation isn’t always perfect.

4. Thème russe: Allegro

7’48”; 1/4 = 122
Harmonious / organic, virtuoso, emotional, agile!

Recommendation:One of the better traditional recordings
Rating:3.8 (4 / 4 / 3 / 4)

Artemis Quartet (2005)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59/1 & 95, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets opp. 59/1 & 95

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 72435 45738 2 8 (stereo); ℗ 2000 / © 2005

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59/1 & 95, Artemis Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 2005, with Heime Müller, Natalia Prischepenko, Volker Jacobsen, Eckart Runge: this is the last recording in the “old” (initial) composition of the ensemble, among their recording of all Beethoven string quartets. The quartet op.59/1 is one of the few recordings with these artists where Natalia Prischepenko is not playing the first violin.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

9’51”; 1/4 = 182
Technically at least as good as (or better than) the Emerson String Quartet, perfect intonation; emotion / expression at least as good as (or rather better than) the Melos Quartett; not quite as “intellectual” as in their most recent recordings.

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’44”; 1/8 = 170
Technically superior, with better and more detailed articulation / phrasing than the Emerson String Quartet.

3. Adagio molto e mesto

12’10”; 1/8 = 43
Very good; slow, but very transparent / lucid; excellent in dynamics, really adagio (= calm)!

4. Thème russe: Allegro

7’31”; 1/4 = 130
Nearly perfect: faster than the Emerson String Quartet — yet this still feels like Allegro, not Presto: more precision, and more musicality; they use agogics in a playful manner, rather than this constant feel of pushing forward.

Recommendation:Yes!
Rating:4.5 (4 / 5 / 4 / 5)

Hagen Quartett (2003)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 59/1, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets (opp. 18/1, 59/1)

Hagen Quartett

DG / iTunes download (stereo, 256 Kbps); ℗ 2003

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Recorded in 2003, with Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen — for general comments on this ensemble see my blog entries on Beethoven’s op.127 and op.130.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

10’05”; 1/4 = 176
Fast, yet accurate, transparent, dramatic, expressive, with detailed thematic phrasing and articulation, yet showing the big phrases; excellent also in dynamics and agogics: I prefer this over the Artemis Quartet!

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

9’00”; 1/8 = 162
Virtuoso, astounding uniformity / coherence across the voices — this really is one interpretation! Perfect articulation and dynamics, dramatic, expressive, and often played with no vibrato at all: simply excellent, clearly the best interpretation of this movement!

3. Adagio molto e mesto

13’04”; 1/8 = 40
Ah — there is so much detail in phrasing, dynamics (down to whispering passages), articulation, expression (even in short phrases), transparency, clarity. Well-structured, exhibiting dialogs, etc. — and even though the tempo is slow, the 2/4 measures can be sensed. Often, they use little or no vibrato at all: simply excellent!

4. Thème russe: Allegro

7’59”; 1/4 = 120
Virtuoso, yet playful, technically perfect; detailed phrasing, articulation and expression, independent of the technical / rhythmic difficulties of this movement; excellent transparency (showing the polyphony). Compared to the Artemis Quartet: this interpretation is less “technical” / intellectual, has a larger emotional span, more differentiation.

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

Kuijken Quartet (2009)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, string quintet op.29, Kuijken Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets op.59, String Quintet op.29

Kuijken Quartet

Challenge classics CC72362 (2 x SACD); ℗ / © 2010

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, string quintet op.29, Kuijken Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 2009, with Veronica Kuijken, Sigiswald Kuijken, Sara Kuijken, and Wieland Kuijken.

Unlike commonly expected, the Kuijken family does not play on period instruments — though of course they can’t simply ignore their experience with historically informed playing: they play with very little vibrato, and their interpretation shows an unbiased view on the musical text, they let themselves be carried by Beethoven’s music which (as Sigiswald Kuijken explains) has reached a level of abstraction that makes it more independent of the type of instrument used.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro

9’25”; 1/4 = 182
A completely different approach than with the Artemis Quartet: the focus is on expression rather than technical perfection and “polished” sound. They almost radically detached themselves from the overwhelming performance tradition of this music: they are reading the text “ab initio” and are somehow rediscovering that music “from scratch”. The result is not a polished performance as with the Emerson String Quartet — but a very exciting experience nevertheless!

2. Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando

8’41”; 1/8 = 174
Excellent — not perfection, but really demonstrating the scherzando. In German one could almost say they “machen eine Kiste” out of this music; in any case, the listener finds lots of new aspects in this music, in a way rediscovering how this may have sounded / be played at Beethoven’s time, and the impression that it might have made to the audience of the late classic period.

3. Adagio molto e mesto

10’17”; 1/8 = 51
What a revelation! Faster, yet calm and transparent (light / discharging articulation): this is the only interpretation in the comparison that really plays 2/4 rather than 4/8, i.e., where one can actually sense the 2/4 measures!

4. Thème russe: Allegro

9’12”; 1/4 = 104
Finally, an ensemble that does not participate in the general race for the fastest performance: the slowest performance, but still one that (just about) feels like an Allegro (maybe close to an Allegretto) — with the benefit that the listener can follow and enjoy all the detail, all of the rhythmic intricacies in this movement. Well done!

Recommendation:Yes! (If you are HIP-averse, go for the Hagen Quartett)
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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