Beethoven’s Inner Biography, Told In 16 String Quartets

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The Miró Quartet recorded its Beethoven cycle over 15 years. (Michael Thad Carter)

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets. Miró Quartet. PentaTone FTC 5186827, eight CDs.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – The 1964-1970 Recordings. Juilliard String Quartet. Sony 19075 992332, nine CDs.

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18. Dover Quartet. Cedille CDR 90000 198, two CDs.

DIGITAL REVIEW – This is the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and the concert world was supposed to go Beethoven bonkers in the months before the big day, Dec. 16, rolled around. Then along came a microscopic organism to spoil the party. So we are left with a flood of new and old Beethoven recordings that COVID-19 could not stop, which is not quite an adequate substitute for hearing the music live in a concert hall.

Or is it?

In the case of the 16 string quartets, I would argue that not only are recordings a viable way to experience these amazing works, it can actually be better this way. The quartet format is most at home in small spaces like a living room, not a big, reverberant concert hall, and a good high-fidelity home sound system can re-create the close-up sound and ambience of a string quartet more realistically than a symphony orchestra or choral group, or even a grand piano.

Household name: the Budapest String Quartet in 1938. (Wikipedia)

Also, it is immensely satisfying to immerse yourself in the quartets at home as if you are sitting down with a great novel or biography, following the story of Beethoven’s astounding development that the quartets tell more completely than any of his other cycles. The six early Op. 18 quartets find him flexing his muscles, trying to break the 18th-century mold while staying generally within its boundary lines. By the five middle quartets, Beethoven had found himself, expanding the sonorities and structures to parallel what he was doing in his symphonies.

In the five late quartets, pretty much the last things he ever wrote, Beethoven turned inward, reaching for a new music with occasionally borderline-crazy ideas that took a hundred years for much of the world to grasp. And I find that the late quartets convey a stoicism and strength that cannot be precisely defined, but can be felt. Especially in these stressed-out pandemic times, they can help get you through it all. I know that they have worked for me.

The quartets have a long, distinguished track record of recordings, and the 250th birthday year has predictably accelerated the issuance of new and old cycles. The Miró Quartet recorded its cycle over a 15-year period, finally emerging with a complete box months ahead of the anniversary. The Dover Quartet is just starting theirs, issuing the six early quartets in September with future installments pending.

But before we get to those, let’s explore some earlier Beethoven quartet recordings:

In the 78 RPM era, each quartet was issued separately in large, hefty albums of three to six discs each. The Budapest Quartet, the closest thing to a household name among chamber groups of its time, came tantalizingly close to a complete cycle, recording six quartets for HMV while in Europe in the 1930s, and after relocating to America when war broke out, recorded nine more for Columbia in the 1940s (the Quartet No. 5 is the sole omission; they only recorded the third movement). The Columbia recordings were available for a while on Sony’s much-missed Masterworks Heritage series; the sound restoration was unbelievably successful, virtually high fidelity. The Budapest set a new standard of unified Beethoven quartet playing in their day – some considered them the chamber music equivalent of Toscanini – yet there is an Old World warmth and lived-in quality in their sound, gentle in attack yet without sacrificing speed.

Come the LP era, taking advantage of the new, more compact format, record labels started to issue the quartets in multi-disc boxes, grouping them in early, middle, and late-quartet sets. The Budapest promptly re-recorded the cycle – this time with a complete Quartet No. 5 – in the Library of Congress in 1951-52. Often a bit slower in tempos and not terribly concerned with strong rhythm, this Budapest edition is still full of elegant phrasings, searching depth, and a sense of structural inevitability that can make you believe this is how it should go. Sony reissued the complete set on CD about three years ago, but they have withdrawn it; this and the earlier Budapest set can still be streamed (there is also a stereo Budapest set where the playing is not as good). The Budapest’s stylistic successors, the Guarneri Quartet, were even more unified in execution and more luscious in tone in the second of their two complete sets, issued piecemeal first by Philips and then complete on Brilliant Classics.

With the Juilliard Quartet, a different kind of Beethoven came onto the scene when their first cycle emerged in the tumultuous years from 1964 to 1970. It was an Americanized, go-getting, often slashing conception – one critic described their playing as “grinding urban angst” – reflecting the group’s immersion in hard-nosed 20th-century composers like Béla Bartók and Elliott Carter. Sony reissued the cycle on CDs earlier this year (for this article, I’m working from German LP pressings).

While there are passages of irresistible drive, the Juilliard approach doesn’t seem to work that well in the Op. 18 quartets; their collective tone is undernourished and like the Budapest, they omit first movement repeats. But they begin to find their mojo in the powerful, symphonic middle quartets; they snap us to attention after the introduction to No. 9 with sharp attacks, the finales of Nos. 8 and 9 are exhilarating at these amphetamine tempos.

Finally, the Juilliard really comes into their own in the late quartets. In No. 13, their tone remains thin, but the third and fifth movements have plenty of expression and depth, and the sixth is a rustic delight – no urban angst here. After digging into No. 14 with initial intensity, they manage to alter their tone to a darker color for a true dolce in the fourth movement, and the finale is surpassingly expressive without seeming hostile. No. 16 is mischievous, full of personality, and the Grosse Fuge (the original finale to No. 13) is great – hard-driving with very strong rhythm and an acerbic, modernist edge, as if Beethoven is looking ahead to Bartók. There is also a digital Juilliard cycle recorded in the Library of Congress in the `80s, but the sound quality is drab and even inferior to the mono Budapest cycle recorded there 30 years before.

Zipping forward to the present, the Miró Quartet cycle presents a formidable technical challenge to the groups of old. Their ensemble playing is virtually immaculate; hardly anything goes astray, nothing is out of tune; the only time I hear any hints of struggle is in the opening fugue of the Grosse Fuge, which is entirely appropriate for this treacherous, intricately churning machine music. Tempos are mostly on the fast side yet comfortably so, and they observe all but a handful of repeats – as per the practice in most recent recordings. The sound quality is excellent, beautifully balanced.

While we can often predict with some accuracy which set of quartets some groups can do best, the Miró‘s peak points occur unpredictably throughout the cycle. While the Quartet No. 1 is lean, mean, and not very satisfying, the Quartet No. 3 sports a broader, richer tone – and after a routine couple of opening movements, the Quartet No. 6 suddenly revs up into high gear in the third movement, and there’s no stopping them from there.

In the middle quartets, the Miró has its best outing by far in the short, terse Quartet No. 11, with real anguish in the first movement, luscious depth of tone and lots of contrapuntal detail in the second, a dashing Scherzo and a downright playful finale. The Quartet No. 7 is excellent, too, yet in No. 8 the fast tempos for once seem rushed and breathless. They can squeeze more emotion out of the lengthy slow movement of Quartet No. 15 than almost anyone and generate cliffhanging drama in the short fourth movement, yet offer no distinct personality in No. 16 and seem like they are going through the motions in No. 12. All that said, I can recommend the Miró set overall as a mostly satisfying present-day cycle.

The Dover Quartet is even more expressive in the Op. 18 quartets than the Miró, sporting a richer, plusher, tone quality, and generally somewhat slower tempos. Yet they are capable of vehemence, ripping into the Prestissimo of the Quartet No. 6 finale with terrific energy. Their more symphonic approach ought to serve them well when they get around to the middle quartets down the road.

Of the cycles I’ve heard over the years, though, the mighty Emerson Quartet set (Deutsche Grammophon) has become my favorite. They excel in all three periods, seemingly combining Juilliard energy and drive with Guarneri polish and Budapest depth and pushing all these qualities to the max, sometimes perilously close to the cliff’s edge. Compared with their predecessors and successors, the Emerson colors seem brighter and darker, the textures meatier, the rhythms have that extra little zip – and when the tempos in movements like the Quartet No. 9 finale, the mad, mad dance in the middle of No. 16’s Scherzo, and the Grosse Fuge race off the charts, the unanimity of execution is startling. And they get the best sonics, too.

I also enjoy the fluid, smooth-as-silk Hollywood Quartet in their classic 1957 set of the late quartets (Capitol or Testament) and the solid, mainstream Hungarian Quartet stereo set of the middle quartets (Seraphim/EMI) that was my gateway into Beethoven chamber music as a kid – and, so help me, Leonard Bernstein’s fabulous symphonic inflations of the Quartets Nos. 14 and 16 with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG). There are so many roads to these quartets – and as the pandemic rages, we now have the time to explore them.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.