Exploring the Beethoven Quartets on disc: Many Paths to Nirvana

Tully Potter2Tully Potter has been a professional journalist for more than 50 years. He has written for various international musical journals, notably The Strad, and for 11 years he edited the quarterly magazine Classic Record Collector. He has made a special study of performing practice as revealed in historic recordings, especially of vocal, string and chamber music, and has given illustrated talks in many countries. His two-volume biography of Adolf Busch was published in 2010 and he is preparing a book on the great quartet ensembles. Here he looks back over a century of recorded Beethoven interpretations to pick out what, for him, are the high points and the occasional low points


Today every string quartet of any consequence aims to record the Beethoven cycle and some ensembles are allowed more than one attempt at this Everest of the repertoire. Chamber music is also ideally suited to home listening. So it is salutary to look back about 100 years and find that, despite a burgeoning record industry, virtually no serious music by small ensembles was being documented.

By common consent, recording started coming of age in 1902. Surrounded as we are by every kind of electronic equipment, we would find the ‘acoustic’ system, whereby the artist sang or played into a large horn which fed the sound to the disc or cylinder cutter, very primitive; but it worked well for voices and stringed instruments, and the great English cellist W.H. Squire began his recording career just after the turn of the century. Fritz Kreisler was recording by 1904 and such notable violinists as Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate and Karol Gregorowicz made records very early.

Nick Morgan, who has just been awarded a PhD for research into early chamber music recordings, thinks that the first string quartet records were seven 1905 Pathé cylinders by the Haagsche Toonkunst Kwartet, pieces by Grieg, Boccherini, Schumann, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Haydn and the group’s violist Bart Verhallen. Duration was a problem for those early pioneers: a cylinder or a ten-inch disc held about three minutes of music and a 12-inch disc about four and a half minutes. Edwardian taste dictated that the vast majority of non-vocal classical records were snippets and encore pieces, all chosen – or cut – to fit the format. Annoyingly, in retrospect, by 1910 the eccentric inventor Thomas Edison, who had his own Edison label, had perfected a technique for cutting up to four minutes on to a ten-inch disc and seven minutes on to a 12-inch disc, but he never marketed the relatively long-playing records that he made – and he never got round to string quartets.

Enter Beethoven

Not until 1911-12 did Beethoven quartets enter the list, via the fine Klingler Quartet of Berlin (incidentally at that time this group had a Welsh cellist, Arthur Williams, who still played in the old way, without an endpin, like his teacher Robert Hausmann of the Joachim Quartet). The Alla danza tedesca from Op. 130 was a natural choice, needing only one 78rpm side, as was the Minuet from Op. 18/5; but the Klinglers also essayed the Variations from Op. 18/5, which required two sides and became a favoured excerpt for many other ensembles. Karl Klingler was a Joachim protégé and the sound of his ensemble, with gut strings and generous portamenti, is probably the closest we can come to the style of the Joachim Quartet.

In 1914 the London String Quartet, led by Albert Sammons and already known affectionately as the LSQ, recorded the Allegro from Op. 18/2 for Columbia. It was followed in 1915 by the Allegro finale of Op. 18/4 and, in 1916, by the first set, Op. 18/2 abridged on four sides, with the Allegro re-recorded to match the rest. The performances were excellent but the LSQ did even better under James Levey, who took over as first violin in 1917. An abridged Op. 18/1 from 1919 had the real Beethoven sound; and for Vocalion the LSQ recorded several sets: an abridged Op. 18/6 and, more importantly, a complete Op. 131 and a Second Rasumovsky, Op. 59/2, complete apart from severe abridging of Beethoven’s repeat scheme in the Scherzo. The playing on these sets achieved a good deal of Innigkeit despite quite fast tempi. Sadly the LSQ never again rose to these heights of interpretation under Levey’s successor John Pennington.

What was the great His Master’s Voice label doing all this time? Its first contender, the Philharmonic Quartet which originally included Eugène Goossens III, was restricted to single discs and no Beethoven; but the Virtuoso String Quartet, led by Marjorie Hayward and formed principally for recording, made Beethoven an early priority with a Second Rasumovsky, set down in 1924, which was ‘complete’ as advertised although, as in the LSQ version, Scherzo repeats were ignored. Even today the interpretation holds up well, as the players comprehend Beethoven’s sound world. Meanwhile in Leipzig the Gewandhaus Quartet, including the cellist Julius Klengel, made a set of Op. 131 which went straight to the heart of the matter, with profoundly devoted playing. This may be the time to say that Op. 131, which Beethoven felt was his best quartet, has had many terrific recordings over the years. Few ensembles have failed in it, whereas hardly any have managed to surmount the interpretative challenges of Op. 130 or the even trickier Op. 132.

Hungarian invasion

lenquatThe LSQ’s temporary defection to Vocalion in the early 1920s let in the Léner Quartet (left) from Budapest, who began working for Columbia in 1922. This group, the first to be coached by the famous Leó Weiner, made an exceptionally homogeneous sound, as the three fiddlers had all been taught by Jenő Hubay, while the cellist was a pupil of David Popper. In 1924 the Hungarians recorded an excellent Op. 131, followed by the ‘Harp’, Op. 74, and the A minor, Op. 132, a set which has a niche in literary history – it is mentioned towards the end of Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point. Up to now, all recordings had been made by the acoustic process, which threw a sort of veil over the string sound and was especially kind to the gut strings in general use. It even made Jenő Léner’s very wide Hubay-style vibrato seem acceptable. The Léners were among the first to record by the new electrical system, using microphones, which most labels adopted in 1925. The Beethoven centenary was looming in 1927 and the Léners got cracking at Wigmore Hall in November 1926, so that by March 1927 five sets were ready for release, with seven more coming the next month. After this initial flood the greatest challenge, the Grosse Fuge, was not faced until 1930; and the first recorded Beethoven cycle was not completed until July 1936, when Op. 18/5 was done. Meanwhile Op. 18/1 was remade almost immediately at Columbia Studios, Petty France, in 1928; and Op. 18/4 was redone in 1935. The acoustic Beethovens were deleted in 1928 but the ‘Harp’ and Op. 131 were not replaced until 1932-33, while Op. 132 waited until 1935. Fresh versions of Op. 135 and Op. 59/2 were made in 1936 and 1938 and further remakes would have followed, had the war not intervened. The players took full advantage of each opportunity to reconsider an interpretation – in every case the later version is preferable. In general the Beethoven records are remarkable for rhythmic flair, impeccable ensemble and warmth rather than spirituality; and despite their huge popularity, which in 1935 brought them a Gold Disc for selling a million discs across the world, the Léners’ slightly soupy style of playing went out of date very suddenly. Virtually nothing from their extensive discography was reissued on LP and the tally on CD has not been much better, although a Beethoven cycle has been issued in Japan. I love their playing because it is so much ‘all of a piece’; but I fully understand its lack of appeal to others.

HMV, who could boast excellent electrical sets of Op. 18/6, Op. 59/3 and Op. 127 from the Virtuoso Quartet by the time of the centenary, had to have a Hungarian ensemble as well. Their choice, the Budapest Quartet consisting of three Magyars and a Dutchman, played in a lighter, more quicksilver manner than the Léner but was not nearly as productive. The première recording of the Grosse Fuge, on four sides, was achieved in just nine takes early in 1927 but the other five movements of Op. 130 took a year to finish, by which time the group had a new second violinist: the newcomer, Joseph Roisman, heralded a series of personnel changes which in nine years would see the Budapest Quartet metamorphose into four Russians. The saga of the Budapest Op. 130, first of the group’s productions to feature on the prestige red label, illustrates the difficulties faced by early record buyers. HMV issued the first five movements in an album with two empty pockets for the Grosse Fuge, which was sold separately; only in 1933, by which time the ensemble included three Russians, did the Budapest record Beethoven’s substitute Allegro finale, which was available on its own before being renumbered and reissued with earthbound 1934 remakes of the first five movements. The 1927 Grosse Fuge remained available, so if you wanted all seven movements, you had to put up with a considerable disparity in styles of playing. There was, indeed, quite a gulf between the 1927-28 and 1933-34 line-ups: the predominantly Hungarian group had a lithe and airy style, whereas the Russian Budapesters sounded quite similar to players of today and only the Hungarian violist remained from the founders. One further Beethoven set from the early Budapest line-up, with just one Russian, must be mentioned, a sprightly 1929 First Rasumovsky, Op. 59/1.

The Franco-Belgians

flozquatWhile the reputation of the Budapest Quartet has resounded through the decades, by dint of the group’s 50-year career, two illustrious Franco-Belgian ensembles – the Flonzaley Quartet (right) and the Quatuor Capet – have been largely forgotten. This is a great pity, as the Capet in particular penetrated to the heart of Beethoven’s music as few musicians have done. The Belgian-trained Flonzaley, who had a private sponsor at first and spent most of their time in America, attempted the Minuet from Op. 18/4 at their very first session for Victor in New York in 1913. That side was unissued but five separate Beethoven movements were released on acoustic discs, including the fugal finale of Op. 59/3 and a cut version of the variations from Op. 18/5. For the Beethoven year in 1927, lovely recordings of Op. 18/2 and Op. 135 were made. In these performances, and the Minuet from Op. 18/4 which fills out the latter set, we mostly hear the archetypal wristy Franco-Belgian style, with restrained use of vibrato. A 1929 reading of Op. 127, with the Scherzo from Op. 18/6 as filler, is not quite so successful but worth hearing. My only reservation about the Flonzaley’s electrical records is that they feature the Russian violist Nicolas Moldavan: he is undoubtedly a first-rate player but he tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

capetquatetIn 1927-28 the great Parisian violinist Lucien Capet (left) started recording for Columbia with the last of several quartet formations that he led over the years. Capet was essentially a nineteenth-century violinist who employed hardly any vibrato, although he fully understood the need for some vibrancy in the tone and could even vibrate with the right hand, by oscillating the bow. There is nothing austere about the five Beethoven recordings he and his colleagues made: Op. 18/5, Op. 59/1, Op. 74, Op. 131 and Op. 132. Capet was a master of the bow, whose principles were passed down through his pupil Ivan Galamian to such players as Itzhak Perlman and Kyung-Wha Chung. He had steeped himself in Beethoven and the Violin Concerto was his major solo vehicle. The quartets are played with springy rhythm, delicate portamento, considerable force despite the musicians’ gut strings, and a serene spirituality in the slow movements, especially the Heiliger Dankgesang of Op. 132. Alas, Capet died suddenly at the end of 1928 and that was the end, except that the violist and cellist went on to record Op. 74 again for HMV under Gabriel Bouillon’s leadership.

rosquatAnother great nineteenth-century violinist who left us valuable Beethoven was Arnold Rosé. As with Capet, his quartet underwent many personnel changes; but all the members except the 1920s cellist, Anton Walter, were leading members of the Vienna Court/State Opera Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1928 the Rosé Quartet (right) recorded three Beethoven works, one early, Op. 18/4, one middle, Op. 74 (slightly cut to fit on six sides), and one late, Op. 131. The playing, similar to that of the Capet but with typically Viennese touches – and brilliance from Rosé in the cadenzas – is very dedicated: the foursome have clearly not been told that the ‘Harp’ is a less good piece than the other middle quartets, as they tear into the development of the opening movement like men possessed. A curiosity is that in the opening fugue of Op. 131, the violist suffers from ‘bow shake’ at his first entry: for years I thought the players had simply chosen that take because it had the fewest faults, but when a Viennese violinist told me that the violist Anton Ruzitzka had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, but had been kept in the ensemble because of Rosé’s regard for him, it all fell into place. That single instance of tremor is the only sign of his infirmity. In the 1920s the cellist Friedrich Buxbaum broke away from the Rosé Quartet to found his own ensemble, led in 1926-27, when most of the records were made, by Felix Eyle. The other players were Max Starkmann and Ernst Moravec. Their Op. 18/2, made for Deutsche Grammophon, is an absolute delight from start to finish: only in the finale do you notice that the cellist – who in any case is not prominently enough recorded, a perennial complaint with quartet discs – is from an older generation than the others.

In Berlin the Klingler Quartet, still including brothers Karl and Fridolin Klingler but with different players on second violin and cello, made a moving recording of Op. 127 for Electrola in 1934 – Beethoven’s sf markings were underplayed but otherwise it was very musical. In 1927 another Berlin ensemble, led by Rudolf Deman of the Staatskapelle, achieved a comparable version of Op. 132 for Deutsche Grammophon. In 1926 the Amar Quartet, including Paul Hindemith on viola, recorded an Op. 95 for DG which, while never as brutal as the Kolisch performance discussed below, is almost shockingly direct, like all this ensemble’s interpretations, so that you hear the mind of the composer Hindemith working behind every note. Anyone who is used to the readings by, say, the Busch or Smetana Quartets will find a lack of nuance; and yet, if the listener is patient, much will be gained by attending to this no-frills approach. In the 1930s and early 1940s, German music-lovers could buy excellent records by two groups led by pupils of Bram Eldering, Max Strub (Op. 59/3) and Wilhelm Stross (all of Op. 18 except the F major). A looted 1943 German Radio tape of Op. 59/2 by the Stross Quartet even popped up on a 1986 Melodiya LP: it turned out to be very good and amazingly well recorded, a few patches of distortion apart.

Busch’s late start

busquatBut it was through the best-known Eldering pupil, Adolf Busch, that the recording of Beethoven quartets reached its apogee. Frustratingly, the Busch Quartet (left) did not record any Beethoven until late 1932, two decades after the group’s founding; but after Busch began his principled boycott of his native land early in 1933, because of the Nazi regime’s treatment of the Jews, HMV in London made sure that as many recordings as possible were made. Even then, circumstances dictated that the Busch ensemble never completed a recorded cycle, although both HMV and American Columbia would gladly have sponsored one, and the wartime recording of Op. 59/2 was not released until 40 years later. But that performance and those of Op. 18/1, Op. 59/1, Op. 59/3, Op. 95, Op. 127, Op. 130, Op. 131, Op. 132 and Op. 135 have rightly gained legendary status. Like Capet, Busch was a master of bowing, especially of the long bow, and his control of rhythm was as sovereign in slow music as in fast. He felt that the late quartets, haunted by intimations of mortality, had to be taken to extremes: his fast tempi generally approached or matched Beethoven’s markings – an exception being the substitute Allegro finale to Op. 130, where his steadier speed gave the skipping main theme more substance – and his slow tempi were very slow. It was the custom, when recording on 78rpm discs, to do two takes of each side before proceeding to the next side. Busch went along with this system in fast movements but in the great slow movements he made only one take of each side, so as to keep as much continuity as possible, and made further takes on subsequent days if necessary. Because his sense of rhythm was so uncanny, the separate sides that make up each movement join up very well on LP or CD. He and his colleagues also knew how to hold a tempo, not speeding up when the music got louder or slowing down when it got softer; and they never made the error perpetrated by some artists, of slowing down when approaching the end of a side. They were also masters of pizzicato and of varying vibrato. Over and above such technical considerations, Busch had an unrivalled ability to bring out the spirituality of Beethoven’s quartets: he could freight a simple line of music with almost unbearable intensity and exaltation; and he identified totally with Beethoven’s sound world. His leadership inspired his colleagues – younger brother Herman Busch, cello, Gösta Andreasson, second violin, and Karl Doktor, viola – to enter into the same rarefied sphere. Today’s listener will note the players’ portamenti, and will also realise that not all the portamenti are matched: while some slides were planned, so as to knit particular phrases together, expressive slides were left to the individual player’s discretion in those days. Some listeners may feel that the tempo for the Lento assai of Op. 135 is too slow, but how wonderfully the musicians sustain it. By the time he came to record the Grosse Fuge, Busch no longer felt able to do it with a quartet – although he continued to feature it in concert cycles – and he made it the first studio project with his American chamber orchestra. It is a blistering performance but one would rather have had it with a single player to a part. The Busch Beethoven records have frequently been reissued and the most recent EMI box of the late quartets includes the American recordings of Op. 130 and the Fugue. To hear Busch in the Cavatina of Op. 130 or the Heiliger Dankgesang of Op. 132 is to realise that he truly set the outer parameters in late Beethoven. Those who have succumbed to the Busch magic will be interested to hear live recordings from the group’s last year, 1951: Op. 18/1, Op. 59/3 and Op. 130, with an even more ethereal Cavatina than in the studio version, stem from a single Ludwigsburg concert. I am told that Op. 131, from a Frankfurt recital, is due for release at last.

Like the Busch, the Budapest Quartet was active for HMV in the 1930s, and a fine Op. 59/2 was recorded by three Russians and one remaining Hungarian. From 1936 the Budapest was totally Russian, which gave rise to many jokes, but the ensemble was anything but a joke, as homogeneous as the Léner but in a much more up-to-date way. As the Russians had all worked in Germany, they had picked up much of the Teutonic Beethoven ethos. Along with the Busch ensemble, the Budapest Quartet were headhunted by American Columbia in the early 1940s and eight more excellent Beethoven recordings were made, during the golden time when Alexander Schneider, the group’s most vital and interesting player, was in the second violin chair. For the decade 1944-54, he was absent; and although the Budapest’s first complete cycle, made under studio conditions at the Library of Congress in 1951-2, had many impressive moments, it lacked the extra spark that he provided (for a while he had his own group and you have only to compare the Schneider Quartet’s Haydn records with the Haydn Op. 76 set made by the Schneider-less Budapest Quartet, to appreciate the difference one player can make). Of course Schneider should have led the Budapest but when he joined, Joseph Roisman was already in that post. Anyway, in the early 1960s the Budapest had another go at the cycle, with Alexander Schneider in place; and although allowance must be made for the effects of anno domini on the players, this stereo set – available very cheaply on CD – is the best way to enjoy the Budapest’s Beethoven. The playing is full of the wisdom of decades and even though some repeats are missing, most reprehensibly in the Scherzo of Op. 59/2, this is an essential set. The Bridge label has compiled another fascinating Budapest cycle from their performances at the Library of Congress: inevitably the playing and the recording quality vary considerably but for the Budapest enthusiast, it makes a valuable supplement.

Végh versus Székely

What of the real Hungarians? The Léner’s successors included the Roth Quartet, not really competitive, and two ensembles linked by the considerable figure of Sándor Végh. He originally led the Hungarian Quartet, who came together in the mid-1930s, but after difficulties in finding a good second violinist he agreed to take on that role himself. The new leader was the Netherlands-based soloist Zoltán Székely; and Végh stayed for just one year before going off to found his own quartet in Switzerland in 1940. Meanwhile the Hungarian Quartet became trapped in Holland by the war, in a fair amount of privation, and used the time to learn all the Beethoven quartets. After the war the Hungarian and Végh Quartets became rivals on the international scene, specialising in the Beethoven and Bartók cycles. The Végh kept the same personnel for four decades while the Hungarian suffered a few changes. In 1952 the Végh recorded the Beethoven cycle in Paris; and not to be outdone, the Hungarian followed suit in 1953, also in Paris. Those sets were monophonic, of course, and eventually both ensembles were asked to make stereo replacements, the Hungarian in Paris in 1965-66, the Végh in Switzerland in 1972-74. The two Végh cycles have much in common, as you might expect with the same players revisiting the music: the stereo set, now on Naïve, includes more repeats and every movement tends to be slightly slower. Most people, myself included, prefer the later set despite some technical lapses: Sándor Végh always had a slightly flabby left hand and it did not improve with age. The Hungarian sets on EMI make a fascinating comparison. The mono is tightly organised and dominated by the cellist, a powerful personality; it is also noticeable that the Russian second violinist plays in a style different from Székely’s. The stereo set, with replacements in the second violin and cello positions, is more homogeneous – all the musicians coming from the same Budapest background – and relaxed. Unfortunately the relaxation extends to omitting exposition repeats which were played in the mono set, including the big one in the opening movement of Op. 130; but overall I love this set for its humanity. A certain amount of mystery surrounds the mono recordings by the Tátrai Quartet. Though presumably made in the 1950s, they did not start coming out on Telefunken until 1959; and only about half the cycle seems to have appeared. The middle-period quartets are nicely done, with a pleasing directness: just occasionally Vilmos Tátrai allows himself a little Magyar flourish and you wish he would do it more often. In the 1970s the Bartók Quartet made a complete Beethoven set for Hungaroton; it was not especially well recorded and the first CD transfers were not well managed, but the performances are worth seeking out, as they are exceptionally intense and committed. The late quartets are memorable for the way in which each player seems to be giving of his utmost. The inexpensive Naxos series by the Kodály Quartet, like that group’s Haydn, is rather humdrum but gives a reasonable idea of the music, as does the cycle on Hyperion by the New Budapest Quartet. I fear I have never shared the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues for the Takács Quartet; and the group’s more recent incarnations feature so many different playing styles, cobbled together, that I cannot enjoy the result. The first violinist’s white tone is another barrier to enjoyment.

The other central European country which contributed to the modern explosion of professional quartet ensembles, Czechoslovakia, came a little late to the Beethoven table. Until the Smetana Quartet emerged in 1945, Czech players were praised more for their native music than for their Classical repertoire. The ‘Smetanas’, Jiří Novák, Lubomír Kostecký, Milan Škampa and Antonín Kohout, changed that perception with exceptional interpretations of a small corpus of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – for a long time they played everything by heart, which limited their repertoire. Their rhythm seemed to start where everyone else’s left off and at their best, they performed with amazing intensity. I can recall being almost lifted out of my seat in the Queen Elizabeth Hall by their exhilarating rhythm in the opening movement of Op. 18/6. Their Supraphon and Westminster recordings of Beethoven’s Op. 18/1, Op. 18/4, Op. 59/3, Op. 95, Op. 127 and the Grosse Fuge have still not been surpassed in certain ways. Above all, that elusive Beethoven sound seemed to come naturally to them. They played the Fugue as the finale to Op. 130 in concert and I can vouch for their success in this hazardous enterprise. Gradually, as they took to playing from the printed music in all but the Czech warhorses, their repertoire expanded to include all the Beethoven works. A Supraphon set of the late quartets and a complete cycle for Denon, including Beethoven’s arrangement of the Op. 14/1 piano sonata, are worth anyone’s attention. The old Supraphon catalogue boasted other excellent Beethoven records. An endearingly old-fashioned Op. 132 by the Czechoslovak Quartet proved that at least one ensemble from the 1930s could play stylishly. From the Janáček Quartet came Op. 18/6, Op. 59/2 and Op. 135; from the City of Prague Quartet, Op. 74 and Op. 95; and from the Vlach Quartet, the complete Op. 18, Op. 59/1 and Op. 132. An almost complete radio cycle by the Vlach Quartet was issued by Praga, lacking only Op. 130, which was supplied by the Janáček Quartet. None of these ensembles quite measured up to the Smetana. Nor did the Talich, although their Calliope cycle featured very beautiful readings of the slow movements, sometimes surpassing the Smetana in the Adagios of the late quartets. However, they often seemed underpowered and too polite in the faster music. More recently the Pražák Quartet on Praga have recorded the full cycle – somewhat undermined by the leader’s wide vibrato, harking back to Jenő Léner – and the Wihan Quartet have achieved the feat twice, with mixed results. Their first cycle, for Lotos, includes the first version of Op. 18/1; and their second cycle, on Nimbus, was taken down in concert. It is impressive, not least in the Heiliger Dankgesang. The Op. 14/1 arrangement is included and the Grosse Fuge is played as the finale to Op. 130.

I am sure the Nordic countries have not been starved of good Beethoven players but only one ensemble, the Copenhagen Quartet, has gained a worldwide reputation, partly through a series of first-rate recordings. Founded by members of the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1957, this group was given its special character by the leadership of Tutter Givskov, a great lady of the violin. The respect in which she was held was demonstrated when the quartet’s second violinist had to withdraw in 1974 through ill health. The concertmaster of the Royal Orchestra, Mogens Durholm, at once offered to be the new second fiddle and the quartet continued until the violist’s death in 1995. Inevitably most of the foursome’s records featured Nordic music but in 1981-82 they made a beautifully recorded set of the late Beethoven quartets for Canzone. I always return with pleasure to these refreshingly direct, unfussy performances.

The Beethoven Quartet

Russians were among the first to appreciate Beethoven. The great violinist David Oistrakh was only an occasional quartet player but fortunately made a few recordings, among them Beethoven’s ‘Harp’, Op. 74. The performance is beautifully played, as you might expect – his colleagues are Piotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky – and Oistrakh is strictly primus inter pares, always willing to make way for whoever has the main melody. The slow movement is very sweetly spun out. Russia has actually given us a Beethoven Quartet, a great ensemble founded in Moscow in 1923 which until recently held the longevity record of going 41 years without a personnel change (the Panocha Quartet of Prague has now surpassed it). The original members were all major personalities, Dmitri Tsyganov, Vassili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky. The Beethoven Quartet were the original interpreters of most of the Shostakovich cycle but recorded little by their name composer in their peak years – and only Op. 130 was distributed outside the Soviet Union. I would like to hear their early LP of Op. 131. A complete cycle was taped in the stereo era, by which time different players were taking the inner parts: the performances, of which only the six of Op. 18 seem to have come out on CD, include a particularly good Op. 127. Another longlived Russian ensemble, the Taneyev Quartet of Leningrad, recorded the cycle in 1982-88 and it is available on separate CDs. In 1985 younger players took over the inner parts and to my ears, most of the later performances are less assured, although the sole disaster is Op. 130, where the point of the Cavatina is completely missed. The eight best performances in the Taneyev cycle show the benefits of playing together for many years and are most satisfying. The Russian ensemble best known in the west is the Borodin Quartet. I recall hearing two late Beethoven quartets by this group when it was led by Rostislav Dubinsky, who struck me as too narcissistic a violinist to be able to lose himself in such rarefied music, a verdict confirmed by an Op. 95 recorded for Japanese Victor. I heard an A minor Quartet led by his successor Mikhail Kopelman that was amazingly spontaneous – an invisible thread seemed to be connecting Kopelman to the cellist Valentin Berlinsky. But the group’s Beethoven recordings were glossy failures, embalming rather than enlivening the music. The present Borodin line-up is perhaps the best ever, and I have heard good Beethoven in concert.

In the wake of the Busch Quartet the German scene was not very enlightened. The German-Czech Koeckert Quartet recorded a nice, solidly musical set for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1950s, recently reissued on CD in Japan; and the Schaffer Quartet did a splendid cycle for the French Musidisc label; but the Barchet Quartet, masterly in Mozart, did not shine so brightly in Beethoven. The Drolc Quartet of Berlin made a few very fine, impeccably Classical LPs for Columbia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Op. 18/3, Op. 18/6, Op. 59/1 and Op. 95; but in 1962, Eduard Drolc suddenly acquired three new colleagues and thereafter the Drolc ensemble was more effective in Romantic music. Two complete cycles from the Melos Quartet featured very dry playing; and a cycle from the East German Suske Quartet was too ‘straight down the middle’, without any high points. The situation has not improved in the CD era, apart from single discs of Op. 95 and Op. 135 from the Brandis Quartet on Harmonia Mundi, Op. 18/6 and Op. 127 from the Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova and Op. 59/1 and Op. 59/3 from the Vogler Quartet on Hänssler – the First Rasumovsky an improvement on their RCA version. Sadly they have not been followed by others; and the early 21st-century cycle by the latterday Gewandhaus Quartet, while very sound, is reminiscent of the Koeckert and Suske. I have been unimpressed by the Leipzig Quartet, also members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, in concert; and I am sorry to say that their stolid Beethoven cycle bores me to tears. The Artemis Quartet are in a different league, potentially among the best Beethoven interpreters today. But they should not be judged by their CDs of old radio recordings, which simply represent a chance for Virgin to acquire a Beethoven cycle on the cheap. The later performances are very good but the earlier ones enshrine inchoate interpretations. In any case, two of the players have changed since then. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the German-based but polyglot Orpheus Quartet made a huge impact, winning three major competitions. A death, of leader Charles André Linale, and a defection, of the second violinist, dealt blows from which the ensemble took a long time to recover. Fortunately the original members made a few recordings, among them outstanding versions of Op. 18/3 and Op. 59/1 for Channel Classics. Unlike certain other groups with players from different backgrounds, the Orpheus melded into a magnificent unit. Among the various quartet pictures on my wall, there is a colour photograph of them which is starting to fade; but the impression of these two Beethoven interpretations is indelible.

Viennese ups and downs

In Austria the situation has been a little better. The Schneiderhan Quartet made only one official Beethoven recording, a pretty good post-war Op. 95 on 78rpm discs; but fortunately two late wartime recordings have been preserved by Austrian Radio and issued on Orfeo: Op. 59/1 from 1945 and Op. 131 from 1944, with a somewhat brutal finale but otherwise very classy. In the early 1950s, the Konzerthaus Quartet recorded the Op. 59 set, Op. 74, Op. 127 and Op. 132 impressively for Westminster. For some reason, the label offered a complete Beethoven cycle to the Barylli Quartet, fine Mozartians who did well enough in the early and middle quartets but produced the most broken-backed late quartets I have heard from a front-rank ensemble. Hugely competent and musical were the Alban Berg Quartet, who recorded the cycle twice for EMI: the second traversal, taken down in concert, is the better and often rises to considerable heights. For a Japanese label the Musikverein Quartet have done a cycle that has all the virtues of Viennese string playing: the performances are so natural in their delivery that you feel guilty in asking for a little more profundity here and there. In that way they remind me of the old Decca performances of Op. 74, Op. 95 and Op. 127 by the shortlived Weller Quartet. Moving to Salzburg, the Hagen Quartet have made some very individual Beethoven recordings for DG. Clearly influenced by the period instrument movement, the interpretations are almost expressionistic at times – I could not take their Op. 95, but so far I have hung on to the late quartets: despite their sometimes glassy, vibratoless surface, they do have something to say. The Grosse Fuge, played as the finale to Op. 130, is appropriately hewn out of granite and in the quieter moments retreats into little scribbles of sound – not necessarily what Beethoven intended, but intriguing.

amquatWe had our own Viennese quartet here in Britain in the shape of the Amadeus (right), about whose Beethoven recordings I have ambivalent feelings. The Deutsche Grammophon discs of the early and late quartets are excellent in their way, although I could do with a leaner, more athletic approach; but I am not stirred by the late quartets, which were recorded twice in the studio. I would suggest live recordings by the Amadeus, of which an increasing number are available: a starting point might be the superb Op. 127, in good mono sound, from the 1956 Salzburg Festival, on Orfeo. DG have an excellent Third Rasumovsky, recorded live in the Wigmore Hall, which has never appeared on CD. In concert, fired up by an appreciative audience, these great players were at their best. The old Griller Quartet were not as famous for Beethoven as for Mozart but their Decca records of Op. 18/3, Op. 95 and Op. 132, which have been reissued on CD, are worth hearing for the homogeneity and punch of the playing. In general, British quartets were not entrusted with Beethoven in the 1940s and 1950s – it seems particularly absurd that the only records made by the Menges Quartet, famed for their Beethoven cycles and cellist Ivor James’s scholarly talks, were two works by Dvorák. In the early stereo era the old Aeolian Quartet, led by Sidney Humphreys and still including Watson Forbes, recorded a stylish Op. 135 for World Record Club. And under Emanuel Hurwitz’s leadership this group did an exceptional set of the late quartets for Argo, issued on CD by Decca along with the early and middle works played by the thoroughly musical Gabrieli Quartet. Hurwitz may not have been the most polished of quartet leaders but he was one of the few who, like Busch, were willing to attack the late quartets full-on and take risks in the slow movements. I still remember the marvellous performances of the late quartets by the Aeolians, televised from a stately home in the days when the BBC still took music seriously; and the studio recordings distil a similar kind of spontaneity. Towards the end of the ten years when the inspirational Christopher Rowland led the Fitzwilliam Quartet, Op. 130 (with the Grosse Fuge) and Op. 132 were recorded for Decca with rare penetration and sensitivity. They have been reissued by Eloquence. Sadly Rowland left the quartet and took his motivational skills to the RNCM in Manchester, where he inspired many young ensembles before his untimely death; and the Fitzwilliam has not risen to such heights since his departure.

explore-picBut the high point of British Beethoven recordings unquestionably came in the 1980s, when the Lindsay Quartet made their first cycle. It began with a superb Op. 130 for John Boyden’s shortlived Enigma label, the 8mins 34secs Cavatina taped in a single take. It seemed to me then, as it still does, that leader Peter Cropper (left) was the first since Busch to scale the heavens fully in this movement. That Op. 130 was absorbed into the complete cycle which the Lindsays went on to record for ASV; and the rest of the late quartets were also noteworthy: Cropper and colleagues Ronald Birks, Roger Bigley and Bernard Gregor-Smith accepted the challenges of the slow movements and reached states of high exaltation as they worked together to bring Beethoven’s music to a new generation. One amusing throwback to the days of the Busch Quartet was that Birks noticeably employed more portamenti than Cropper. There could be no finer monument to Roger Bigley, who has recently died. I do not feel that the Lindsay Quartet’s second ASV cycle improved on the first one: sometimes it seemed overwrought rather than inspired. But at least they tried, as did the Medici Quartet in a cycle now on Nimbus. Leader Paul Robertson has always been one of the most protean personalities on the musical scene and I usually find interest in what he and his colleagues do. I was sorry that the Vanbrugh Quartet recorded their cycle before they had fully matured, and before they acquired their present second violinist Keith Pascoe: an Op. 132 that I heard in a London concert a couple of years ago was among the best performances I have experienced. In recent times we have had a profoundly affecting cycle from the Endellion Quartet, reflecting more than three decades of dedicated Beethoven interpretation, including many extras – the first version of Op. 18/1, Op. 14/1, two quintets and various fragments – and using up-to-date editions by Jonathan Del Mar. I would say that none of these modern British quartets has dealt in ‘perfect’ playing; but each ensemble has tackled the eternal verities in a convincing way.

Frenchmen in Germany

We left the Franco-Belgian school at the point of Lucien Capet’s death in 1928. His major successor in France as a Beethoven interpreter had a confusingly similar name, Joseph Calvet, but was a very different kind of player. The Quatuor Calvet still used the portamenti of the day but also deployed beautifully tasteful vibrato in the Franco-Belgian manner. Half a dozen Beethoven works were superbly recorded in Germany for Telefunken: Op. 18/1, Op. 18/5, Op. 59/2, Op. 59/3. Op. 95 and Op. 131. All except Op. 95 have reappeared on CD. Most listeners of today will find that they need to make very little adjustment to enjoy these performances; the players do not whack into Beethoven’s accents with quite the conviction of more Germanic groups but they do get to the heart of the slower music. The most famous Franco-Belgian ensemble of the interwar years, the Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, made only one Beethoven recording, Op. 59/2, and it was rather disappointing. Cellist Robert Maas was able to do better after the war with the Paganini Quartet which he founded in America with Henri Temianka and two Belgian colleagues, Gustave Rosseels and Robert Courte (sadly the wartime Quatuor Artis, consisting of Alfred Dubois, Arthur Grumiaux, Courte and Maas, made no records). Somehow I missed most of the RCA recordings by the Paganini Quartet – a strange omission, since I knew the group’s leader Henri Temianka reasonably well in his last years. I acquired five performances, the three Rasumovsky Quartets and Op. 135 with the original players and Op. 74 with Adolphe Frezin on cello instead of Maas, who died suddenly in 1948, and Charles Foidart on viola in place of Courte. I did not even realise that the Paganini had recorded two late quartets, Op. 131 and Op. 132, and four of the Op. 18 set, Nos 1, 2, 4 and 5. So the recent reissue of all 11 performances has come as something of a revelation. The Paganini team, mostly Belgians and led by a man who, though born in Scotland of Polish parentage, included Jules Boucherit of the Paris Conservatoire among his teachers, play with lovely, slim Franco-Belgian tone and use very little portamento – I remember Temianka criticising Adolf Busch’s slides. I feel sad that the Paganini Quartet did not complete their cycle, as at the time it would have been very competitive in terms of performance. Incidentally the group’s name came not from any striving after empty virtuosity, but from the ex-Paganini set of Stradivari fiddles supplied by Mrs William Andrews Clark, one of three rather deaf grand dames of American chamber music (the others being Gertrude Whittall, who donated the Stradivari instruments used by the Budapest at the Library of Congress, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge). Co-evals of the Paganini Quartet were the Quatuor Pascal of Paris, formed by the violist of the Quatuor Calvet and for a time attached to French Radio: record collectors of the 1950s could buy an excellent Beethoven cycle, some of which has been resuscitated by Forgotten Records; and perhaps we can hope for the return of the Vox performances by the Quatuor Loewenguth. I would not rate the Beethoven of the Pascal and Loewenguth on the same level as their interpretations of French music; but the Loewenguth players were excellent in Mozart and Haydn and brought a Classical sense of proportion to everything they did. It is a pity that in the stereo era we have had very little Beethoven from Paris or Brussels.

quatitItaly used to import quartet ensembles from abroad to sate the appetites of the many chamber music societies – the Busch players were wildly popular – and of the native ensembles who achieved international reputations between the wars, only the Quartetto Poltronieri were known for presenting Beethoven cycles. Four young people who met at Siena in 1943 were determined to change that state of affairs; and as soon as the war was over, Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Lionello Forzanti and Franco Rossi met at Reggio Emilia to play quartets in earnest. In 1947 Forzanti was replaced by Piero Farulli. From the start they made Beethoven a central plank of their repertoire, beginning with Op. 59/1, and they played everything by heart. In this endeavour they were inspired by the pre-war Kolisch Quartet, as were the Smetana Quartet, and in fact the Quartetto Italiano (above right), as they became, directly influenced the Smetanas to start playing from memory in 1949. As a parenthesis I should point out that the Kolish Quartet recorded no Beethoven; but we have not lost much, judging from a January 1947 broadcast of Op. 95 by the Pro Arte Quartet of Wisconsin University, led by Rudolf Kolisch. Although the tempi are similar to those of the Busch Quartet, the Pro Arte performance is often brusque, inflexible and unfeeling, where the Busch reading is relatively nuanced and sensitive. Kolisch’s drill-sergeant approach creates some excitement, especially in the finale, but in the slow movement he and his colleagues are dry-eyed and in the Larghetto introduction to the finale they disregard the injunction espressivo. Anyway, the Quartetto Italiano played by heart for only a decade, and the practice may have contributed to the rather mannered impression given by their Beethoven records of the early 1950s. The editors of the old Record Guide almost came to blows over these beautiful but slightly spineless readings – as I recall, only Andrew Porter was in favour. The Quartetto worked through that phase and in 1967 began recording a Beethoven cycle for Philips. The first LP, Op. 132, was generally rated the best version since the Busch; and if memory serves, the Quartetto Italiano were the first to present the initial five movements of Op. 130 on Side One of an LP, with the Grosse Fuge and the substitute Allegro finale on Side Two, enabling the listener to choose between the two finales on turning over the disc. Completed in 1975, the cycle has been reissued on CD at least twice; and it is perhaps the most humane we have had. The playing is very beautiful but the musicians are not afraid to attack the more strenuous moments. I have a reservation about one of the variations in Op. 131 but the late quartets are life-enhancing. Among the middle quartets, I would single out the ‘Harp’, especially its slow movement, which is ravishingly played. One might want a more sinewy, athletic approach to Op. 95 and the Op. 18 set, and more repeats, but in general there can be few complaints. What I find interesting is that the Quartetto Italiano’s Achilles heel, their sometimes strange idea of rhythm, does not obtrude on their Beethoven cycle as it does on their Mozart. Although the group’s career ended in some disarray, a story for another time, these great Italians lit the path for the next generation. Among their pupils were the Quartetto Borciani, who disbanded after a career of two decades: a useful 1995 CD contains the first version of Op. 18/1 and half a dozen miscellaneous pieces.

Hollywood and Los Angeles

Inevitably this article takes a Euro-centric view. I must confess to a certain lack of sympathy with what is often considered to be good Beethoven quartet playing in the United States. I have immense admiration for many American quartettists, some of whom have a fund of knowledge which dwarfs my own. I love to hear them talk, or read their thoughts on the music. The problems for me often begin when they actually put bow to string. One general point needs to be made: American quartets mostly seem to play in auditoria which are far too big, leading to the sort of over-projection which nowadays manifests itself in that horrible habit of waving bows in the air at the end of a work. But let me start on a positive note. In the 1950s certain invitations were issued which were not generally taken up. The Hollywood Quartet made a sincere attempt to encompass the world of the late quartets; and their set fell short only because, I suspect, the players – mainly recording artists rather than concert givers – were not wholly steeped in Beethoven’s sound world. More to the point was an exhilarating account on RCA Victor of the ‘Harp’, Op. 74, by another West Coast group, the American Art Quartet, led by the estimable Eudice Shapiro with her husband Victor Gottlieb on cello and the inner parts taken by Robert Sushel and Virginia Majewski. Stalwarts of the legendary Evenings on the Roof in Los Angeles, these musicians must have been quite something to hear in person: the Adagio of the ‘Harp’ is heavenly. The Viennese violinist Erica Morini loved playing quartets at home and in 1956 Westminster recorded her in Op. 18/2 with her current colleagues, fellow Viennese fiddler Felix Galimir, Walter Trampler and László Varga. These four immigrants certainly brought a corner of central Europe to the New York studio. They have a lot of fun with the finale, in a way no quartet would dare to do today, and the entire performance is lovely. A stereo tape of the accompanying Mozart quartet has turned up, in superior sound, but it seems that the Beethoven was taped in mono only. A disc by the New Music Quartet on Peter Bartók’s label contained a lean, urgent rendering of Op. 59/3 that was thoughtful where appropriate and culminated in a fearsome fugal finale. One might have wished for a more substantial coupling than the Op. 14/1 arrangement but this ensemble, led by Broadus Erle with Matthew Raimondi, Walter Trampler and Claus Adam, was patently in tune with Beethoven. In 1956 Broadus Erle disappeared to Japan, where he did valuable work as orchestral and quartet leader; and after he returned in 1960, he led the resident quartet at Yale University. For Vanguard in 1967-71 the Yale Quartet recorded a set of late quartets which to my knowledge has not been matched in the US. Walter Trampler was again the violist in Op. 130 and Op. 135, but all six of the players who took part in the recordings were clearly sympathetic artists.

Now for the debit side of the ledger. The career of the Juilliard Quartet has been amazing on so many counts that I feel guilty in not liking their Beethoven. Admittedly they have changed over the years, as new members have come in: the earlier Juilliard approach to Beethoven was tough and tight, the later approach more expansive and expressive. I do not really enjoy the products of either attitude; and Robert Mann’s white tone hinders my full immersion in the music-making. One difficulty for me in trying to appreciate American quartets is that they often do not get the right sound for Beethoven. Not that there is only one prescribed sonority for his music, but the players must be able to confide in the listener. I have really tried to like the Guarneri Quartet, a group which went four decades without a personnel change and was celebrated in books, films and concert videos. What I heard on their visits to London, and on their records, was a very heavy style of playing dominated by a powerful cellist. Listening to the bloated, over-lush sound of their Mozart, one gets a clue as to what may be wrong with their Beethoven; and so it proves. It is all too confident, and even overbearing, to be convincing. And it is never quiet enough. I cannot abide the rather slick approach of the Emerson Quartet, even if I try to forget that I hate ensembles who alternate the leadership between the violinists. I enjoy much of the actual playing of the old Fine Arts Quartet, in their Concert Hall cycle and assorted broadcasts, but as they do not challenge themselves interpretatively, I cannot see how they could ever hope to challenge their listeners. And while I find the Vermeer Quartet’s friendly approach more on my wavelength, they do not always work the requisite magic for me, as many of the performances do not manage to leap out of the studio. They clearly make a special effort with the late quartets, however: violist Bernard Zaslav is proud of Op. 127, Op. 130 and the Grosse Fuge, and I think he is right. I like the final line-up of the Cleveland Quartet, led by William Preucil Jnr, very much: in their Telarc cycle the playing is very beautiful and is matched by sympathetic recording quality. Two highlights for me are Op. 59/2, with all its repeats, and Op. 131. Among the younger generation, I have high hopes for the Pacifica Quartet when they get round to recording Beethoven, although surprisingly their rhythm in a recent broadcast of Op. 132 was rather spongy in places.

Canada, Australia and Japan

I finish my survey with three one-offs. Moving north of the border into Canada, I find the Orford Quartet, which flourished in Toronto from 1965 to 1991, to be among the most impressive Beethoven ensembles. Violinists Andrew Dawes and Kenneth Perkins were both from Calgary, which may partly explain their obvious empathy; violist Terence Helmer was from Ontario, cellist Marcel St Cyr from Quebec. They were coached in the Weiner tradition by the distinguished Hungarian violinist Lorand Fenyves. The original members can be heard on a CBC disc in Op. 59/1 and the Cavatina from Op. 130; and I believe they made a complete recorded cycle. The cycle I know, on Delos, comes from the mid-1980s and has Denis Brott in place of St Cyr. Their playing makes the best possible criticism of some of their US rivals – here is the genuinely confiding style, with a hint of fragility in Andrew Dawes’s tone that is very appealing. Plunging down into another former British dominion, the Australian Quartet was a terrific Classical ensemble under William Hennessy’s leadership in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not strictly relevant here, but offering collateral evidence, is a 1995 recording of Mozart’s G minor Quintet, where the two Adagios are played as affectingly as they have ever been. The only Beethoven I can adduce is a 1989 recording of Op. 59/2; but it is very fine, both in intention and in execution. We now travel to Japan, where in the years 1966-79 a great quartet bloomed, flourished and withered without being noticed by the rest of the world. It was led by an exceptional artist, Mari Iwamoto, who was 35 before she was able to fulfil her dream of founding a quartet; she then enjoyed a career of only 13 years with it before she was carried off by cancer. She was taught an immense amount by the ensemble’s remarkable cellist Toshio Kuronuma, who had played in Broadus Erle’s Japanese quartet. He was Iwamoto’s chamber music Svengali, helping her to tone down and focus her playing and metamorphose from a soloist into one of the world’s best quartet leaders. As the other members Yoshiaki Tomoda and Junji Suganuma played in an orchestra, the quartet rehearsed from 1.00 in the afternoon, four days a week; but Iwamoto took her new vocation very seriously and would start going through the music with Kuronuma (with whom she also built up a repertoire of duos) several hours before the others arrived. Happily the Mari Iwamoto Quartet made myriad recordings and many broadcasts and concert tapes exist. Of Beethoven we have Op. 18/1 (twice), Op. 18/3, Op. 59/1, Op. 59/3 (twice), Op. 74, Op. 95 (twice), Op. 132 and Op. 135. One would need only to hear the broad, concentrated reading of the Heiliger Dankgesang to know the group’s quality. If you agree with me that the Tokyo Quartet has always been essentially an American ensemble, and has become steadily more rootless over the years – recording two rather irrelevant Beethoven cycles along the way – the MIQ remains the sole notable Japanese chamber group.

The final judgment

To sum up, no collection of Beethoven quartets should be without the Busch records, which consistently rise to heights rarely scaled since. I would counsel making the Endellion Quartet package, on Warner Classics, the first choice for a modern digital cycle, not just because it is so complete and so scholarly, but because the playing by Messrs Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson and David Waterman is always worthy of the music. The Quartetto Italiano cycle on Philips has special qualities of humanity and sheer beauty; and the Lindsays’ first cycle, now on the Resonance label, gets to the heart and soul of Beethoven. I had not intended this article to be a flag-waving exercise, but if you throw in the two fine performances of late quartets by the Fitzwilliam, the British come out of it rather well. The collector who gets really hooked on Beethoven will find that some of the CD sets of historic ensembles are ridiculously inexpensive; and the experienced web-searcher will discover many of the 78rpm recordings on YouTube and other online sources. Every great quartet finds new things to say about this inexhaustible music.

A few general points, before I finish. I have not said much about intonation, because I have never heard a late Beethoven quartet played completely in tune. It can be inferred that the older players mentioned above suffer occasional lapses in tuning but in most cases they will cause nothing more than a slight twinge in the listener. I have said virtually nothing about the various performances of the Grosse Fuge, because most ensembles acquit themselves well in a work that was rarely played, 100 years ago – Joachim’s standard plan for a Beethoven cycle, followed by many successors (though not by Busch, who liked to begin a concert with a late quartet and put an Op. 18 work before the interval), did not even include the Fugue. The democrats among my readers will note that I have often used the word ‘leader’ for the first violin, and moreover have often laid stress on the leader’s contribution. But Beethoven himself did the same: he may have cursed Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and even sacked him from one première, but it was only when Schuppanzigh returned to Vienna from a spell in St Petersburg that he felt able to proceed with his great project of the late quartets. You cannot achieve great Beethoven interpretations with a committee: sooner or later someone has to take responsibility for that crucial first violin part, which will colour the entire piece. I have made some references to repeats. Certainly from Op. 59 onward, if Beethoven did not want a repeat, as in Op. 59/1, he did not ask for one. Therefore, I assume that when he did request a repeat, he meant it. Not to play the second repeat in the opening movement of Op. 59/2 is akin to pulling down one wing of Blenheim Palace because you cannot afford to heat it. I am still waiting for a quartet to play the Minuet of Op. 18/4 correctly, that is, with two statements of the Minuet after the Trio as well as before it. Beethoven clearly writes that he wants the restatement played faster ‘the second time’. Had he just wanted a single faster repetition of the Minuet, as we hear from some ensembles, he would have written something like ‘Da capo, più Allegro’. When an ensemble does this, I still have the pre-Trio tempo in my head and I am momentarily thrown. If a quartet were to do the job properly, I would hear one go-through at the original tempo, followed by a faster repetition, which would be much more logical. The nineteenth-century convention of playing a Minuet only once after its Trio is a pretty silly one, in any case. Of course, some groups dodge the issue of this Minuet altogether, by the simple expedient of ignoring all of Beethoven’s instructions except the ‘Menuetto Da Capo’ one.

I have already said something about the dangers of playing chamber music in larger halls. Many of today’s musicians do not trust their audience, and do not realise that if they dare to play really softly, the audience will still follow them. We need a campaign for the restoration of the pianissimo – a good dynamic range is particularly important in Beethoven’s music. Readers will also note that I value broad tempi in Beethoven’s slow movements. Today many gurus of period instrument performance will seize any opportunity to tell us that there was no such thing as a slow tempo in Beethoven’s time, and that the slow tempo was an invention of the Romantic age. They may well be right. But no composer, not even Beethoven, can know the full potential of his or her music – and once you have heard great players dare to adopt a real Adagio tempo, there is no going back to the restrictions of the 1820s. We have yet to see the monstrous regiment of the early music movement get a grip on the Beethoven quartets, although I have heard interesting experiments from the Kuijken family and the Quatuor Turner. Whatever happens, future generations will find as much material for exciting, creative musicianship in these inimitable string quartets as we have encountered over the past 100 years.


Tully Potter  Copyright 2013