A Beethoven a Day: At last, some fourplay

A Beethoven a Day: At last, some fourplay


norman lebrecht

January 16, 2020

Welcome to the 13th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


String quartets opus 18/1-6

A new century had just begun when Beethoven made his first utterances in the format that Haydn invented. It is almost as if he waited until  the 19th century had dawned and he was 30 years old, knowing he could do something so different that it would never be mistaken for the work of any other composer, or of the classical past. The six quartets that make up his first set were written for his friend, the violinist Karl Amenda, whose employer Prince Lobkowitz could afford to pay for them.

The bold opening statement of the first quartet, played by all four instruments together together and without harmony, is a clear breach with the ingratiating intros of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven is saying ‘listen up’, and we do. Each instrument then has its own riff on the composer’s statement. It sounds almost like free speech, which cannot have been lost on the Prince and his household in the fragile social atmosphere of 1800.

The slow movement of the first quartet makes reference to the vault scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Once again, Beethoven is staking his ground as a composer who covers the whole of civilisation. The music is rapturous, and it never looks back. Across six quartets, it just grows and grows (although the finale contains a self-quote from Beethoven’s string trio, opus 9).

In my listening, I have tended to rule out ensembles like the Amadeus Quartet who like to root Beethoven in the classical past and veer more towards those who see him as sui generis. Adolf Busch and members of his family, recorded at Abbey Road in 1933, are overwhelmingly convincing in the first quartet.

The Vienna concertmaster Walter Barylli and his 1953 quartet are exhilarating in the last.

Betwixt and between, there is an abundance of choice. The Budapest String Quartet (1952) and the Fine Arts (1966) display a breezy can-do attitude towards the set which is engrossing as you listen, less enduring when it’s over.

The Guarneri and the Emerson extend this attitude into something of an American Beethoven tradition, and no worse for that.

Many swear by Peter Oundjian and the Tokyo Quartet in the gripping Malinconia of the closing quartet, a clear anticipation of the next period in Beethoven’s life, the Eroica years.

The Alban Berg Quartet are so accomplished they make you forget how difficult these quartets are to play, let alone play well. For a more human, introspective touch, go to the Belcea Quartet.

My pal Tim Page writes: I’m very fond of the Yale Quartet set of the late Quartets.  It came out on Vanguard some 50 years ago and has something of a cult about it.     It makes palpable sense of the music while never becoming prosaic.   I’m also very fond of the Hollywood String Quartet version.    For a complete set I might go with the Alban Berg, the EMI recording.    The early Budapest give an understanding of why they were so revered in their time.   The Capet is wonderful in 132 as I recall.

The Israeli psychoanalyst and Haaretz music critic Amir Mandel casts his vote for the Vegh Quartet (with surely the most evocative cover ever to decorate a string set).


The violinist Gidon Kremer opts unexpectedly for the Quartetto Italiano – and you will quickly understand why They play like Pavarotti sings, without any sign of effort.

Such variety out there. Get listening.




  • Olassus says:

    Amir Mandel has it right.

  • fflambeau says:

    Haydn did not “invent” the string quartet. He certainly had a great deal to do with its modern development but to say that he “invented” the form is simple hyperbole and wrong.

    Viennese composers such as Georg Christoph Wagenseil and Ignaz Holzbauer wrote music for two violins, cello, and viola. Even earlier, the Italian, Alesandro Scarlotti wrote a set of six works entitled “Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo” (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord). Scarlotti was dead about 7 years before Haydn was born.

    Lots of nonsense has been written about Haydn and this is one of the principal myths.

    Another common myth is that Beethoven learned a great deal from Haydn; something disproved by the great B himself who said he never learned anything from him (he was a student of H’s): his god was not Haydn but Handel.

    • Novagerio says:

      fflambeau : Bravo! Haydn is rightly the “Father of the String Quartet”, mostly for having written 68 of them.
      The prototype of the string quartet goes back to the Baroque ‘Sonata a Quattro’ – four-part sonata for string ensemble (as far back as to Gregorio Allegri).

      The real developement came however with Beethoven, who really developed the medium through his three famous periods of creativity (like the Piano Sonatas), and basically set the model into its present form.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Sigh. Everyone knows that Haydn was not the first to write for the String Quartet (e.g. two violins, viola and cello combination). However, he was the first to view them as a chamber combination rather than a violin with accompaniment: the tune gets passed between the different instruments and all are required to play solo-istically at times in the piece.

    • Julian Rushton says:

      I think Beethoven said he didn’t learn anything from Haydn’s teaching, and found the strict discipline of Albrechtsberger more useful. He surely learned a lot from Haydn’s actual compositions.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    For some reason I have never warmed to the Quartetto Italiano.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Not all releases of the Vegh Quartet’s set had that particular cover. But they are always worth hearing, as is Sandor Vegh’s unaccompanied Bach.

    My own preferred version is the Quartetto Italiano, so I guess I “unexpectedly” agree with Mr. Kremer.

    If you can track it down, do try to find and listen to the Arnold Rosé Quartet’s op. 18 no. 4. These were players with their roots and styles deep in the 19th century (Arnold Rosé was born in 1863). The chaste vibrato and expressive portamento take some getting used to but the style is not mincing or cautious in any way.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear David,
      Paragraph one: I agree.
      Paragraph two: I agree.
      Paragraph three: I totally, wholeheartedly agree.

  • Pedro says:

    Kremer is right.

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    There is almost as bewildering an embarrassment of riches with the quartets as with the symphonies. Among more recent versions are the cycles by the Takacs & Artemis quartets.The Lindsays have been a longtime benchmark & those by the Talich quartet are also very fine. There is a complete set of the Alban Berg on DVD which is the epitome of perfection, almost too good to be true but well worth watching.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Quartetto Italiano, of course, but I’m also very fond of the Borodin Quartet (original members) set on Chandos. Both quartets offer gorgeous playing and profound interpretations.

  • Julian Rushton says:

    I don’t quite understand some of this; apart from the fact that Op. 18 No. 1 was not the first to be composed (that was No. 3). What is this about ‘ingratiating introductions’? Hardly any Haydn and Mozart quartets have introductions; nearly all begin with the main theme, as does Beethoven in that striking unison opening of Op. 18 No. 1.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I gave my Alban Berg set away,was disappointed with Vegh, have good memories of Budapest, but have stayed with the Borodin Quartet’s Op. 18.