Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E minor, op.59/2, “Razumovsky II”

Media Review / Comparison


2012-01-21 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-28 — 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

Introduction / The Recordings

Here’s another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in E minor, op.59/2 — 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 E minor, op.59/2, “Razumovsky II”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Allegro (6/8)

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

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/2, mvt.2, score sampleAnother slow movement with a tempo challenge: again, Adagio means “calm”, not “slow”! Here, there’s the additional challenge of a slow melody running “out of the listener’s ear sight” (if played too slowly) vs. the movement movement appearing nervous with its small note values in the accompaniment. And what is “lots of feelings” (molto do sentimento) anyway?

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/2, mvt.3, score sample, AllegrettoBeethoven, string quartet op.59/2, mvt.3, score sample, Maggiore (Thème Russe)Here, we have a rhythmically intricate 3/4 Allegretto (not Presto), followed by a Maggiore part with a “Thème russe” — presumably a Russian melody / song with no indication of a tempo change between the two parts. Beethoven explicitly writes that the Allegretto is to be repeated (without internal repetitions) after the Maggiore part, thereafter the Maggiore part is to be played again, followed by a third pass (again without repetitions) of the Allegretto.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/2, 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.59/2, 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 recording shown last:


Amadeus Quartet (1959)

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 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 (6/8)

8’27” (no repetitions done at all); 3/8 = 64
Portamenti, too much vibrato (especially in the first violin); sound / recording rather bad, tone / articulation rough, coarse. Particularly bad: often, they reinforce / charge the second half in syncopated notes (instead of discharging), hereby destroying the effect of the syncope.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

11’38”; 1/4 = 50
Fairly dense in sound

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

7’09”; 1/4 = 156 — 170 (Maggiore)
The entire movement feels rushed, played almost carelessly — and there is sometimes this “after-loading” of long notes, obscuring the rhythmic structure.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’25”; 1/2 = 160
The articulation (especially the first violin) is rather careless; rushed passages.

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

Guarneri String Quartet (1966)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), CD coverBeethoven: 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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spacerRecorded in 1966, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments and CD information see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

9’51” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 70 (±)
Faster, clearer than their 1991 recording, but with frequently rushed articulation, especially in rapid (sixteenths) passages, occasionally reinforcing syncopated notes; the exposition slows down, so for the repetition they suddenly need to pick up tempo again.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

13’54”; 1/4 = 45
Too slow overall (often sounds like 12/8 rather than 4/4), dense, but softer than with the Amadeus Quartet (some staccato notes played quite broad); portamenti — bout the worst aspect for me is their broad vibrato, synchronized across all instruments.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

8’24”; 1/4 = 126 — 156 (Maggiore)
The Allegretto is too slow, feels like an Andante; the Maggiore part on the other hand is substantially faster: there is probably too much tempo difference, making the return to the Allegretto part slightly awkward.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’40”; 1/2 = 158
Better in the tempo (but less full in the sound) than their 1991 recording, with some (unwanted, presumably) tempo variations at the beginning of the movement.

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

Guarneri String Quartet (1991)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), CD coverBeethoven: 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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spacerRecorded in 1991, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments and CD information see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

10’23” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 66(±)
Broad legato sound, rather dense.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

13’29”; 1/4 = 45
All of the remarks on their 1966 recording also apply here. In addition, the cello sometimes is gradually too fast — probably an indication that they should have selected a faster tempo.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

8’38”; 1/4 = 135 — 150 (Maggiore)
The articulation in both parts is rather broad, often close to legato; the tempo in the Allegretto part is slightly better than in their earlier recording.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’52”; 1/2 = 148
OK, but could be a tad faster for a Presto movement.

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

Quartetto Italiano (1974)

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 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 (6/8)

10’29” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 62
Mostly OK, except that in the evolution period there is a sequence of sixteenth notes that is played faster than the rest, for no good / obvious reason (a “cutting artifact”?).

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

14’26”; 1/4 = 40
Extremely slow, static, mechanical, the slow tempo kills the tension. Also, the first violin can’t always hold the slow tempo, and sometimes crescendo appears to be linked to an accelerando — I regard this a beginner’s mistake…

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

8’07”; 1/4 = 140 — 150 (Maggiore)
The tempo in the Allegretto part is better than in both recordings of the Guarneri String Quartet, with lighter articulation, though in the Maggiore part there are some slight tempo inconsistencies (rushing).

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’47”; 1/2 = 154
The tempo is OK — but still, the movement feels like an Allegro rather than a Presto. Fairly soft, but playful — a bit harmless at times, though. Towards the end there are two general breaks: too bad these are simply counted through — the breaks lack all tension.

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

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 (6/8)

13’25”; 3/8 = 72
The tempo is rather fast (almost as fast as the Artemis Quartet), but good — though the movement lacks sound transparency, and the second violin is almost covered by the first one, such that one easily misses the dialogs between these two voices. On the positive side: like the Melos Quartett and the Artemis Quartet they do both repetitions.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

12’50”; 1/4 = 47
Too slow — the melody moves “out of sight”: there is way too much focus on the punctuated accompaniment, makes this sound like an Andante rather than Adagio. Lacking expression in the melody (it all goes into the accompaniment), the big phrases.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

8’04”; 1/4 = 138 — 160 (Maggiore)
Rather slow, the string tone is very dry, sometimes scratchy, sometimes “airy” — and (and especially) in the Maggiore part. Overall, the interpretation (to me) lacks humor, is sometimes also a bit stiff (clearly, the movement is tricky to play…).

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’32”; 1/2 = 150
Good tempo, not rushed — I like their playful spirit in this movement; the frequent voice switches are done well and harmonically. The articulation is often a bit rough, though.

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

Emerson String Quartet (1997)

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 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 (6/8)

9’12” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 68
Good, virtuosic, agile, technically flawless.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

12’06”; 1/4 = 54
Either they play with sordino here, or they make their instrument sound like played with sordino — the text does not support any of this.

If indeed they used the sordino, then this reminds me of a little episode in a film about Arthur Rubinstein, where the artist tells the audience a little “trick” (“Just between you and me, don’t tell anyone!”), how easily to play a “good piano” on a concert grand, simply by using the shift pedal while playing forte — I think he just used that for its entertainment value, as among pianists it is regarded bad practice: the shift pedal alters the sound quality — just like the sordino. In any case, the sound of this movement with the Emerson Quartet is not appropriate (let alone the strong portamenti) — it makes emotions appear put-on.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

7’25”; 1/4 = 165 — 170 (Maggiore)
Too soft, excess portamenti, lacks rhythmic tension (inside the bars); the Maggiore part is rushed, not always precise, almost careless.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’17”; 1/2 = 162
Fast,virtuosic, but often pushed forward (i.e., the listener feels “pulled” all the time) — this does not create tension. Where is the emotion?

Recommendation: Not quite.
Rating: 3.2 (4 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1984)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, CD coverBeethoven: 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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spacerRecorded in 1984, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

13’25”; 3/8 = 70
Compared to the Emerson String Quartet: both ensembles use about the same tempo, but this is more emotional, more expressive / eruptive, less polished, using a larger dynamic range. Occasionally, there is some “post-charging” on syncopated notes. Together with the Artemis Quartet and the Endellion String Quartet this is one of few interpretations doing both repetitions.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

12’21”; 1/4 = 38 – 44 (introduction) — 55
Dense, expressive, big phrases (too much vibrato, though). The introduction is very slow, but with the staccato passage (bar 16) they switch to 1/4 = 55 — a better tempo; the switch is hard to justify from the text, though one could see it as extensive rubato.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

7’15”; 1/4 = 160 — 165 (Maggiore)
Excellent: rhythmic, expressive — with their rhythmic articulation they create tension even within the bars!

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’16”; 1/2 = 164
As fast and virtuoso as the Emerson String Quartet, also somewhat rushed; the articulation is sometimes unclear, details are “swallowed” — but at least from a point-of-view of emotion and expression this is a good interpretation.

Recommendation: One of the best “traditional” interpretations.
Rating: 4.2 (4 / 4 / 5 / 4)

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 — for general remarks see op.18/4.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

12’41”; 3/8 = 74
Faster than all of the above, technically more perfect than the Melos Quartett — but technical perfection is not used for its own sake, rather as means of expression. Of particular interest: the sharp syncopes, the pauses full of tension, and their conscious play with agogics — and a nice little detail: the coda which is detached through a slightly prolonged break.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

11’58”; 1/4 = 48
Excellent: truly molto adagio — calm throughout, ff only where requested by the composer; no forcing, no exaggeration of emotions. Could do with less vibrato, though — but they have a good balance between melody and accompaniment.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

6’08”; 1/4 = 190
I can see what led to this interpretation: at the core, the Maggiore part, the Thème russe appears to have been the deciding factor for setting the tempo, and this by itself is OK, and it is also a good decision to play both parts in the same tempo (there are no indications of a tempo change between the two parts) — however, that tempo simply does not work for the Allegretto, at least the way it is played here: OK, technically, it is mastered almost perfectly, but it now feels like a Presto, or as if it were written as 3/8: too bad that the listener doesn’t get the time to hear and enjoy all the rhythmic intricacies in this part of the movement!

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’08”; 1/2 = 172
Very fast, but absolutely under control. Expressive, but not quite as emotional as with the Melos Quartett. Interesting / nice: the idea to play the last occurrence of the main theme prior to the Più presto slower: this increases the “più presto impression”. In parts this may have been done because at such a high base tempo, much faster is impossible to play; this option still permits to start the Più presto with a “speed jump”).

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

Hagen Quartett (2010)

Beethoven/Mozart/Webern, string quartets, Hagen Quartett (2010), CD coverBeethoven: String Quartet op.59/2; Mozart: String Quartet K.428; Webern: 6 Bagatelles op.9

Hagen Quartett

Myrios classics & Deutschlandradio / iTunes download (SACD, stereo 256 kbps); ℗ 2010
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spacerRecorded in 2010, 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. This CD was released in 2011, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the ensemble — presenting the artists in top form.

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

9’30” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 68
Expressive, emotional, detailed phrasing, carefully coordinated / tuned among the instruments (portamento in the main theme!), rich in the expressions / contrasts (abysses in the evolution part, but also very subtle passages), agogics… excellent!

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

11’55”; 1/4 = 54
This feels Adagio, even though the tempo is among the “faster” ones: the accompaniment is never nervous / excited, but calm, discreet, supporting the melodies and the big phrases. Calm overall — they avoid any nervous vibrato (often, there is no vibrato at all, and trey don’t hesitate using empty strings); and again, their extreme / wide dynamic span, down to whispering, almost: another masterpiece of an interpretation!

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

6’10”; 1/4 = 198 — 190 (Maggiore)
At first, the tempo is a shock: this is even faster than with the Artemis Quartet — but amazingly, they can make this tempo work! Actually, I doubt that even the most advanced string quartets at Beethoven’s time was anywhere close to the technical abilities of this ensemble — still, I’m simply astounded his playfully & seemingly easily they tackle the rhythmic intricacies of this movement, yet retaining dynamic differentiation, detailed articulation — as if it was a light, fast Viennese waltz — leaves me speechless!

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’10”; 1/2 = 170
Extremely virtuoso, extremely fast — but under full control: many passages are pushing forward (after all, this is a Presto!) — but then there are also ritardandi, detailed agogics, but way more playful, less technical / “sporty” than the Artemis Quartet. I also find the voice switches most amazing: one can of course locate the instrument (the sound management is excellent), but there’s a seamless transition from the two violins to the viola, and on to the cello, and of course also their technical abilities are absolutely stunning — in all voices!

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

Kuijken Quartet (2009)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, string quintet op.29, Kuijken Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: 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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spacerRecorded in 2009, with Veronica Kuijken, Sigiswald Kuijken, Sara Kuijken, and Wieland Kuijken — for general comments and CD information see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Allegro (6/8)

10’13” (repetition #1 only); 3/8 = 66
This interpretation could hardly be more different from the one with the Artemis Quartet: perfection is not the goal here, but showing the ruptures in the composition, the abysses, those grotesque passages with conventional, set phrases next to dissonances, etc.; an interesting detail: Beethoven writes syncopes as quarter notes, and in other places as two joined eighths: all of the above interpretations treat these as equivalent, only here one hears two eighths: it takes a while to get used to this reading, and it’s probably impossible to tell which version is correct.

2. Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (4/4)

11’39”; 1/4 = 50
Thanks to the artists for giving us a non-polished version of this piece! With this recording, one gains new insights into the “internals”, the “raw” feelings and expressions in this movement: even if Sigiswald Kuijken states that they were not trying to demonstrate historically informed playing — that’s what this is anyway, in the very best sense!

An interesting detail: in the introduction (see the last two bars for the first violin in the example above), Beethoven does not use punctuated notation, but rather 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/16 — whereas in other places he does write “conventional” punctuated notation; all of the above artists treat these two cases as equivalent, while the Kuijken’s will (in some places, at least) play this “as written”, i.e., with the middle note “half-detached”.

3. Allegretto — Maggiore (Thème russe) (3/4)

6’57”; 1/4 = 165 — 170 (Maggiore)
Excellent tempo selection, more moderate / natural in the playing / expression than the Melos Quartett. The Allegretto almost feels like a fast waltz, but in a rather grim mood; the Maggiore part is very close in tempo and feels “right” for the Thème russe.

4. Finale: Presto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’35”; 1/2 = 156
Excellent tempo; presto, but not rushed, expressive. One nice detail: the two general breaks prior to the Più presto are loaded with tension: very good!

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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