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Beethoven: String Quartets, Comparison Summary


2013-02-14 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-11-12 — Latest update
2014-11-05 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-13 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction: String Quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

In a series of blog entries, posted over the past months, I have compared the recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets in my music collection, tackling one quartet per blog posting:

Purpose of the Summary

In this note I would like to summarize the results of all of the above postings, this time focusing on artist rather than individual compositions; at the bottom of this posting you find a table that collects all of my ratings. Please keep in mind that a) these are just my personal ratings, and b) the criteria in comparing performances of music that has been composed 200 years ago can’t be entirely objective: the composer’s notation only provides a rough skeleton defining how the music was intended to sound; most artists don’t (or can’t) resort to period instruments — and even if we were really able to reproduce the original sound (which we can only approximate now), we cannot reproduce the human perception at the time of the composition, as our ears & brain are heavily biased by the music performed today!

The Ensembles in the Comparison

For details on the actual CDs / recordings please select the appropriate blog postings from the list above; full CD details are typically given on the first sonata (sorted as shown above) for a given CD or CD set. The sections below are sorted by the name of the quartet; the following ensembles are featured here:


Alban Berg Quartett

Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Alban Berg Quartett, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Alban Berg Quartett (Günther Pichler, Gerhard Schulz, Thomas Kakuska, Valentin Erben)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1982 – 1984: EMI CDS 7 47135 8 (stereo, 4 CD)
    Beethoven, The Late String Quartets (opp. 127, 130-133, 135)
  • Average rating (27 tracks): 3.3

Amadeus Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Amadeus Quartet (Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1959 – 1963: DG 463 143-2 (stereo, 7 CD)
    Beethoven, The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)
  • Average rating (76 tracks): 2.3

Artemis Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 127, Artemis Quartet, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2, 59/3, 131 & 132, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Artemis Quartet, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/4 & 59/2, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/6, 130 & 133, Artemis Quartet, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.59/1 & 95, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Artemis Quartet (up to 2005: Natalia Prischepenko, Heime Müller, Volker Jacobsen, Eckart Runge)
Artemis Quartet (after 2005: Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, Friedemann Weigele, Eckart Runge)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2010: Virgin Classics 50999 628659 0 6 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/1, 127
  • 1998 – 2002: Virgin Classics 50999 607102 0 8 (2 CD, stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/2, 59/3, 131, 132
  • 2011: Virgin Classics 50999 070834 2 6 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/3, 18/5, 135
  • 2008: Virgin Classics 009463 80268 2 2 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/4, 59/2
  • 2010: Virgin Classics 50999 69458 0 8 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/6, 130, 133
  • 2005: Virgin Classics 72435 45738 2 8 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 59/1 & 95
  • 2011: EMI Records / Virgin Classics (download)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 74, 14/1
  • Average rating (74 tracks): 4.7

Brooklyn Rider

Beethoven, string quartets op.131; Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords, Eric Jacobsen)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2011: In a Circle Records ICR005 (stereo)
    Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps; Tignor: Together into This Unknowable Night; Beethoven: String Quartet op.131
  • Average rating (7 tracks): 4.4

Busch Quartett

Beethoven, string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Busch Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Busch Quartett (Adolf Busch, Gösta Andreasson, Karl Doktor, Hermann Busch)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1932 – 1941: Pearl, Pavilion Records Ltd., GEMS 0053 (3 CDs)
    Beethoven, The Late Quartets opp.95, 127, 130-133, 135
  • Average rating (30 tracks): 3.5

Chiaroscuso Quartet

Beethoven: String quartet op.95; Mozart: String quartets K.428 & 546, Chiaroscuro Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí, Emilie Hörnlund, Claire Thirion)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2012: Aparté APO51 (stereo, CD)
    Beethoven: String Quartet in F minor, op.95; Mozart: Adagio & Fugue K.546, String Quartet K.428
  • Average rating (4 tracks): 4.5

Emerson String Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1996 – 1997: DG 447 075-2 (stereo, 7 CD)
    Beethoven, The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)
  • Average rating (71 tracks): 3.1

Endellion String Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2005 – 2008: WCJ (Warner Classics & Jazz) 2564 69471-3 (stereo, 10 CD)
    Beethoven, Complete String Quartets, Quintets & Fragments
  • Average rating (74 tracks): 2.7

Guarneri String Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Guarneri String Quartet (1995), CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), CD cover Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, Guarneri String Quartet (1969), CD cover

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The Ensemble

Guarneri String Quartet (Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1995: Philips 434 115-2 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op.18
  • 1966 – 1969: RCA Victor / BMG Classics 60457-2 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, The Middle String Quartets, opp. 59, 74, 95
  • 1991 – 1992: Philips 432 980-2 (stereo, 2 CD)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op. 59
  • 1969: RCA Victor / BMG Classics 60458-2-RG (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, The Late String Quartets, opp. 127, 130-133, 135
  • Average rating (84 tracks): 2.5

Hagen Quartett

Beethoven: String quartets op.135; Schubert: String quartet D.810 Death & Maiden, Hagen Quartet, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/4 & 131, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.130 & 133, Hagen Quartett, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 59/1, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Hagen Quartett, CD cover Beethoven/Mozart/Webern, string quartets, Hagen Quartett (2010), CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/3, 18/5 & 135, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Hagen Quartett (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1990: DG 431 814-2 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartet op. 135; Schubert, String Quartet D.810 “Death and the Maiden”
  • 1999: DG / iTunes download (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/4, 131
  • 2000 / 2001: DG 471 580-2 (stereo)
    Bach, 5 Fugues BWV 871, 874, 876 – 878; Mozart, Adagio & Fugue K.546; Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 130 & 133
  • 2003: DG / iTunes download (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 18/1, 59/1
  • 2003 / 2004: DG 00289 477 5705 (stereo)
    Beethoven, Streichquartette opp. 127 & 132
  • 2010: Myrios Classics / iTunes download (stereo)
    Beethoven: String Quartet op. 59/2; Mozart: String Quartet K.428; Webern: 5 Stücke op.5, Bagatellen op.9
  • 2012: Myrios Classics MYR009 (SACD: 5-channel surround / stereo)
    Beethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/3, 18/5, 135
  • Average rating (54 tracks): 5.0

Kuijken Quartet

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

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The Ensemble

Kuijken Quartet (Veronica Kuijken, Sigiswald Kuijken, Sara Kuijken, Wieland Kuijken)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2006 – 2009: Challenge classics CC72362 (2 x SACD)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op.59, String Quintet op.29
  • Average rating (12 tracks): 5.0

LaSalle Quartet

Beethoven, string quartets op.127 - 135, LaSalle Quartet, CD cover

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The Ensemble

LaSalle Quartet (Walter Levin, Henry W. Meyer, Peter Kamnitzer, Jack Kirstein)

  • 1970: Brilliant Classics 94064 (3 CDs)
    Beethoven, The Late String Quartets (opp. 127, 130 – 133, 135)
  • Average rating (27 tracks): 3.2

Leipziger Streichquartett

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 & 132, Leipziger Streichquartett, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.131 & 135, Leipziger Streichquartett, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.130 & 133, Leipziger Streichquartett, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Leipziger Streichquartett (Andreas Seidel, Tilman Büning, Ivo Bauer, Matthias Moosdorf)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2002: Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 307 0854-2 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 127 & 132
  • 1998 / 1994: Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 307 0820-2 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 131 & 135
  • 2007: Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 307 0851-2 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets opp. 130 & 133
  • Average rating (27 tracks): 3.8

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

Beethoven, string quartets op.18, Melos Quartett, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven, string quartets opp.127 - 135, Melos Quartett, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1983: DG 410 971-2 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, Die frühen Streichquartette op.18
  • 1984: DG 415 342-1 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, Die mittleren Streichquartette op.14/1, opp. 59, 74, 95
  • 1984 – 1985: DG 415 676-1 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, Die späten Streichquartette, opp.127, 130-133, 135
  • Average rating (85 tracks): 4.0

Quartetto Italiano

Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Quartetto Italiano (Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi)

Recordings, Rating

  • 1967 – 1971: Decca 454 062-2 (stereo, 10 CD)
    Beethoven, Complete String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)
  • Average rating (71 tracks): 2.8

Quatuor Mosaïques

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/1 & 18/4, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD cover Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2 & 18/3, Quatuor Mosaïques, CD cover

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

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The Ensemble

Quatuor Mosaïques (Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, Anita Mitterer, Christophe Coin)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2004: naïve E 8899 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op.18/1 & 18/4
  • 2005: naïve E 8902 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op.18/2 & 18/3
  • 1994: naïve E 8901 (stereo)
    Beethoven, String Quartets op.18/5 & 18/6
  • Average rating (24 tracks): 5.0

Takács Quartet

Beethoven: string quartets opp.95, 127 - 135, Takács Quartett, CD cover

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The Ensemble

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, Roger Tapping, András Fejér)

Recordings, Rating

  • 2004: Decca 470 849-2 (stereo, 3 CD)
    Beethoven, The Late String Quartets (opp. 95, 127, 130 – 133, 135)
  • Average rating (31 tracks): 3.6

Notes on the Comparison

In the table below I’m summarizing the results of my iTunes ratings (*, **, **, ****, *****). Keep in mind that these ratings are subjective, though I have tried my best to avoid underrating specific recordings, e.g.,

  • by listening to slower recordings first (as after a fast recording, a slow interpretation may often sound “clumsy”)
  • later in the comparison, I sometimes would also listen to those recordings first which I anticipate to be worse than others — not in order to confirm a prejudice, but because after a good one, a bad recording may sound even worse;
  • by avoiding directly confronting “classic” recordings with newer, “historically informed” performances, or recordings with period instruments;

A Summary Table

Note also that not all of the table below can be viewed as direct comparison, as for some ensembles I only had a few quartets to compare, and there may not be any overlap between recordings of such ensembles. Finally: the recordings of Beethoven’s string quintet in C, op.29, are not included in the table below.

Beethoven, String quartets, ratings, comparison table / summary
The fact that some artists only received top five-star ratings is partly due to the limitations in the iTunes rating options, with obvious limitations in the differentiations. In general, I used the rating levels as follows:

  • ***** = top rating, my favorite recording(s)
  • **** = excellent recording
  • *** = good recording, often a typical “classic” recording
  • ** = dominated by features / attributes that I dislike, or with “moderate deficiencies”
  • * = major objections, or recordings that are against the composer’s (perceived) intent, etc.

Despite the lack of rating differentiation, the above summary should (at least for artists represented by a complete collection of all quartets) be relatively safe against occasional mis-ratings due to confrontation with the “wrong” contenders, due to variations in my own “receptivity” etc., thanks to the sheer number of the ratings which should average out occasional, minor errors. That said, there is of course no guarantee that anyone will agree with the above results…


A loosely related post:

2013-02-25: Beethoven String Quartets, Personal Addendum


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6 thoughts on “Beethoven: String Quartets, Comparison Summary

  1. Dear Rolf,

    As always, a very thorough and balanced set of appraisals. 3 comments:

    1. I bought the Endellion Quartet set very cheaply about a year ago, seduced by the ‘extras’ and the new edition. In light of your disappointment, I think I need to go back and have a careful re-listen.

    2. Seeing your very positive comments about the Quatuor Mosaïques in Op.18, did you catch a BBC recording of them performing Op59, No.1 & Op131 from a while back? A kind soul uploaded these onto YouTube- links:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vy8GzHgtXe4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hii2szPQ4Q

    3. I was lucky enough to hear the Kuijken Quartet perform Op59, No.2 about 8 years ago. As I recall, Sigiswald played 2nd violin and his daughter 1st violin. In between the quartet and Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet, she accompanied a singer in some Schubert lieder. What a talented family!

    Best,
    Louis

    • Dear Louis,
      thanks again for your comment(s) — and sorry for the delayed answer (“concert duty” … 🙂 ).
      It’s excellent to have those links to the two Mosaïques performances — I have put those into my “To listen” and “Favorites” lists and will certainly take the time to hear them at full length! It struck me how soft they play the beginning of op.59/1 — very interesting! Too bad the sound quality is limited, and that there is no real video. I wonder whether they still have plans to record all of Beethoven’s quartets?
      As for the Endellion recordings: that recording (set) was recommended to me by several members of a BBCR3 forum — I was skeptical from excerpts, and disappointed after listening to the entire set. Yes, the “extras” are interesting, but whether they justify buying the entire set, I don’t know. If you want my frank opinion: technically, they are a class below most of the other ensembles in my review. After this experience, I’m now even more careful in following recommendations.
      Best regards,
      -Rolf

  2. Dear Rolf,

    Your summary table is interesting and is a useful guide. I only wish it included the Végh quartet (1952 and 1972 recordings), and the Lindsays which many think extraordinary but which I have not yet heard. I would also be interested to know what you think of the Alban Berg concert recordings in comparison with the studio one. I was particularly struck by the low scores you give to the Amadeus, the Guarneri and the Italiano (many seem to think very highly of the latter in particular, but I do not share their enthusiasm).

    In any case, it would be great to have an updated version of your table.

    Best regards,
    Paul

    • Dear Paul,

      thanks a lot for your feedback! I wish such comparisons could ever be complete. But trying to achieve that would end up as an eternal task, with the comparison effort ever increasing with each additional recording. In general, I see my comparison as a “defined subset”, which can only possibly be “completed” by consulting comparisons by others. 40 years ago, I found the Amadeus quite good, though they were (on LPs) rapidly surpassed by the first recording by the Melos Quartett Stuttgart (which I do not have on CD). Meanwhile I seem to have gone down the irreversible path to (preferring) historically informed interpretations, and in that light, “vibrato-rich” quartets such as Amadeus, Takács, and many others stand very little chance to achieve top ratings. I have vague memories of hearing the Amadeus quartet in Lucerne around 1972, and at about the same time I also once heard the Végh Quartet with op.59/2 and one of the late quartets. Yes, the latter were excellent — at least back then…
      When I do the comparisons, I know who is playing (I did not try doing blind comparisons), but I try to stay neutral, merely asking myself “What’s my experience?”, “Does it relate to what’s in the score?”, etc. — trying NOT to be influenced by “big names”. And I do listen to the recordings IN FULL, SEVERAL TIMES. I can’t deny that there is a subjective element in here — and there always will be. I mis-trust those fan communities that keep preaching “he’s the best!”…
      I also received other recommendations, more in the HIP camp, such as the Pellegrini and Brentano string quartets — I haven’t even started looking at those (no, didn’t purchase so far).
      Last: it’s not impossible that once in a while I’ll add another recording of individual quartets — but only if I’m convinced that it has a chance of getting a top (4 .. 5) rating. Adding more “boxes” (even “just” with the late quartets) is pretty much out of question (need another life for this!), especially now that concert reviews are eating up much of my precious time … I try to re-gain some focus on CD recordings, though — but also there, there is so much music to be dealt with! On the bright side: I feel that my CD reviews will now be profiting from my experience with concert reviewing. And there are also reviews of string quartet concert performances, e.g., from this spring season in Lugano…

      Best regards,
      -Rolf

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