Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E♭ major, op.74, “Harp Quartet”

Media Review / Comparison


2012-02-13 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-11-02 — Metronome table added, Endellion String Quartet 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

Here’s another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in E♭ major, op.74 — 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♭ major, op.74, “Harp Quartet” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.1, score sample, Poco adagioBeethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.1, score sample, AllegroOne might think of a poco adagio as “a little slower than andante” — and with a 4/4 measure, this might be something like 1/4=50, maybe? The Quartetto Italiano comes closest to this definition. All others play substantially faster, but taking it as alla breve (which then again mostly feels like poco adagio).

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

Beethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.2, score sampleA piece for or about the manic depressive? There are these serene, happy passages (like at the beginning) — and suddenly , with a single note, the music turns sad, almost depressive, doubtful, seeking, then gradually recovering, turning back to the serene mood, until there’s another switch …

As for the tempo: it is best to take the annotation by its translation “calm, but not too much”, rather than by a pre-conceived tempo association (such as 1/8=50): if the tempo is too slow, it becomes hard to keep track of the long phrases or to follow the melodies.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.3, score sample, PrestoBeethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.3, score sample, Più presto quasi prestissimoThe second section (Più presto quasi prestissimo) has an additional remark by Beethoven: “Si ha s’immaginar la battuta di 6/8”, i.e., even though the notation is 3/4, one should imagine playing 6/8 bars. Interestingly, there are no eighths at all in this part: the entire section features just quarter notes with accompanying chords; what makes sense, though, is to consider pairs of bars forming a “6/8 measure, written in quarter notes”. The Presto part is dominated by eighths, and so, even if the Più Presto quarters are played faster than the same notes in the Presto, the impression will be that the Più Presto is slower than the Presto part!

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

Beethoven, string quartet op.74, mvt.4, score sampleThis is an Allegretto theme with six variations and a Coda. The variations are annotated as follows:

  1. sempre f e staccato
  2. sempre dolce e p
  3. (f)
  4. sempre p e dolce
  5. sempre f
  6. un poco più vivace

The Coda starts with the tempo of the last variation (un poco più vivace), the last 11 bars are annotated Allegro, which gives the impression of a Presto, as at the same time there is a switch from eighths-trioles to sixteenths.

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.74, comparison, M.M. tableThe metronome numbers for the second movement and for the introduction of the first movement were calculated from the overall timing.

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 (1960)

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 1960, with Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

8’38” (exposition not repeated); 1/4 = 52 — 150 (Allegro)
Especially in the Allegro, this is one of the better recordings of these artists (particularly sound-wise); the articulation is OK, the sforzati are a bit broad.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

10’09”; 1/8 = 50
The first violin is too strong and rough — and in turn, the middle voices are too weak. Sometimes rather mechanic, stiff (staccati in the second violin!). The rough articulation destroys the intimacy of this movement.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

5’24”; 3/4 = 90 — 160 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: sometimes sloppy in the articulation; Più Presto: too forceful, almost brutal

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’57”; 1/4 = 100 (Theme)
For the most part of the movement, this interpretation is actually brutal (it is f, not ff or fff!)

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.2 (3 / 2 / 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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 1967, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

10’11”; 1/4 = 56 — 150 (Allegro)
The introduction is nice, though with some unrest, not really poco adagio. In the Allegro, the intonation isn’t always quite clean, there are some tempo irregularities and flow issues (e.g., the extra ritenuti after the forte chords disrupt the flow). Too much vibrato. In the Coda, the articulation of the sixteenths in the first violin is sloppy.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

11’01”; 1/8 = 46
The vibrato is too strong, too nervous (and annoyingly often even synchronous!). Probably too slow (see the general remarks above), too uniform overall, could be more transparent.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

5’21”; 3/4 = 92 — 164 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: accurate, virtuoso; the articulation lacks detail.

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

7’19”; 1/4 = 80 (Theme)
Too slow: they play Andante, not Allegretto. The articulation in variations I and III is pretty coarse, variation IV is slow, variation VI is slower rather than un poco più vivace.

Recommendation: No
Rating: 2.2 (2 / 2 / 3 / 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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

10’01”; 1/4 = 51 — 156 (Allegro)
The introduction is OK, often with little or no vibrato, though I think the just manage to maintain / built up the tension towards the Allegro. In that second part, the tempo is at the upper limit — articulation, control & coordination start suffer slightly (e.g., in the sixteenths passages and the Coda); also, in the Allegro they could use some more agogics, expression and phrasing. It’s not bad, overall, but classes behind what the Artemis Quartet is offering!

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

10’12”; 1/8 = 50
Did they not have the guts to play with little or no vibrato? Too bad (though all other ensembles play this movement with vibrato, too). Some of the ppp entrances are “washed out”, unclear, vague, almost shaky.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

5’09”; 3/4 = 92 — 176 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
The articulation is sometimes inaccurate, rushed — especially in the Più Presto, which is even often superficial, if not worse: a slower tempo would have been much better!

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’58”; 1/4 = 90 (Theme)
Starts soft, gentle, avoiding the brutalities from the above interpretations (Amadeus, Guarneri). In variation II, the odd sf (a typical Beethoven joke!) should stand out much more. Variation III has occasional coordination (slight) issues, is also a bit “scratchy” in the accompaniment, lacking sound. Good tempo in variation VI: really più vivace!

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

Quartetto Italiano (1971)

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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 1971, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

10’19”; 1/4 = 42 — 150 (Allegro)
As mentioned above, these artists are the only ones coming close to a poco adagio in 4/4, the introduction is expressive, but also a bit linear: at this tempo it is hard to maintain the tension. The Allegro is played with a warm tone, with a very nice build-up towards the end. Some unintended (?) accelerations in the evolution period.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

10’09”; 1/8 = 50
The first violin is sometimes too loud, dominating. Little agogics and small scale phrasing, sometimes relatively stiff — otherwise emotional, phrasing OK. the sound quality of the recording is rather moderate, the vibrato very broad, often heavy.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

5’26”; 3/4 = 90 — 170 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: The articulation is inaccurate, sometimes rushed, they even lose tempo control occasionally.

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’50”; 1/4 = 96 (Theme)
Good tempo relations, emotional — the best part of this interpretation.

Recommendation: Perhaps for the last movement.
Rating: 3.0 (3 / 3 / 2 / 4)

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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 1997, with Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

9’10”; 1/4 = 58 — 164 (Allegro)
Some portamenti may be OK — but not right after the first tone in this movement! I feel some discomfort with the tempo switch to the Allegro — not sure whether it’s an odd tempo relationship, or whether it’s this constant feeling of accelerando which dominates this interpretation of the Allegro. To me, this lacks agogic “play” and the phrasing in general; there are better means to generate tension / build-up than constant pushing for speed. Technically at a very high level — except for the sloppy articulation of the sixteenths in the Coda.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

8’54”; 1/8 = 57
Good tempo, good instrument balance — the color changes could be more pronounced.

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

4’46”; 3/4 = 100 — 190 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: fast, virtuoso; Più Presto: extremely fast, the articulation could occasionally be better, is sometimes almost vulgar.

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’42”; 1/4 = 94 (Theme)
The articulation in variation III is a bit rough, coarse. The tempo relation V – VI (un poco più vivace) is good.

Recommendation: Among their better performances in this series.
Rating: 3.8 (3 / 4 / 4 / 4)

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
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 1984, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

9’53”; 1/4 = 53 — 146 (Allegro)
Very good introduction, expressive! In the Allegro: excellent musicianship, long phrases, expressive, emotional, with only minor articulation issues.

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

9’01”; 1/8 = 56
Emotional, good phrasing and articulation, excellent instrument balance, good tempo; very nice: the mood changes from bright / serene to dark!

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

4’54”; 3/4 = 102 — 168 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: somewhat rushed overall; this impression is reinforced upon the two recurrences.

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’17”; 1/4 = 100 (Theme)
Expressive throughout; fast, but OK (controlled, not too fast). Variation I is a bit rough (the “odd” sf is simply missing: a real pity!), III is rough, but still sounding well; good tempo relationship between variations V and VI (un poco più vivace).

Recommendation: Yes.
Rating: 4.2 (4 / 5 / 4 / 4)

Artemis Quartet (2011)

Beethoven, string quartets, Artemis Quartet, CD coverBeethoven: Complete String Quartets

Artemis Quartet

EMI Records / Virgin Classics (Amazon MP3 download, 220 Kbps), © 2011
Beethoven, string quartets, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


spacerRecorded in 2011, with Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, and Eckart Runge. Together with Beethoven’s quartet transcription of the piano sonata op.14/1, this concludes their recording of the Beethoven string quartets. Unfortunately, if you are looking for “hard copies” (rather than MP3 downloads), these two compositions are available with their entire Beethoven set only, i.e., if you have collected the individual CDs of this series you are forced either to download MP3 files, or to purchase the entire set, duplicating the existing 7 CDs. Strange business practice!

Notes on the Movements

1. Poco adagio (4/4) — Allegro (4/4)

9’31”; 1/4 = 50 — 164 (Allegro)
Excellent introduction — they start cool, really sotto voce: with totally flat tone (senza vibrato). This makes it much easier to generate growing tension up to the Allegro. That second part is excellent as well, has plenty of agogics, phrasing, detailed & clean articulation; technically near-perfect, better than the Emerson String Quartet: unlike those, there isn’t a constant push forward — they keep the time for the occasional ritenuto to emphasize phrasing (without disrupting the flow!).

2. Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)

8’34”; 1/8 = 59
Excellent instrument balance and transparency, clean articulation, and very impressive in the richness in colors, the mood changes. The fastest tempo here — but still calm overall!

3. Presto — Più presto quasi prestissimo (3/4)

4’46”; 3/4 = 98 — 190 (Più presto quasi prestissimo)
Presto: fast, virtuoso, accurate & precise — excellent, with detailed articulation! Più Presto: different from all other ensembles, the first chord is not played as a big “bang”, but as broad arpeggio. Excellent overall!

4. Allegretto con variazioni (2/4)

6’35”; 1/4 = 98 (Theme)
Excellent, once more! Variation VI (un poco più vivace) is the fastest one in this comparison. The tempo is relatively fast overall — without giving that impression, though, as it’s all always under full control, and they never push the tempo (or the dynamics) to a point where the sound would appear rough, rushed or otherwise out of control: a listening pleasure, and worlds from the Amadeus Quartet!!

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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