There are so many recordings of the Late Beethoven quartet set that picking a favorite, I believe, just comes down to personal preferences. For years my favorite had been the Quartetto Italiano, with its warmth and control. Then just recently, I heard the Tokyo Quartet version.
What a difference! More fire and vigor (when required), on the whole, than QI. (Or LaSalle, the other late Beethoven set I have) And there's reverence when required -- a good example of this is the first movement of the Op 132 (A minor), which is frequently played with plenty of Sturm und Drang. The Tokyo version rises above forte in only a few places (like the last few bars), and the rest is *played* relatively calmly, in contrast to the underlying tension of the movement. And the slow movement of the Op 131 (c# minor) is a lovely, long, tranquil afternoon in the park.
But getting back to the fiery part, there is plenty to mention. I'll limit myself to two of the highlights. One is the first section of the massive Grosse Fuge movement. Once they get past the intro, and get to the fugue subject, they turn the intensity to HIGH and leave it there for a full five minutes. You can almost hear the resin flying off of the bows as they dig into each note of the subject. And once all the fugue voices have entered, they maintain that intensity all the way to the contrasting calm F-sharp section. Think of trying to pound on a large nail, with a large hammer, for a full five minutes. Plenty of strength, both physical and mental, is required, and the Tokyo group pulls it off.
I also want to comment on one movement in the rendition of Op 131 that is extremely special, namely the Presto (it's the fifth section, and takes the place of a Scherzo). It is played at a VERY fast tempo, and alternates between an almost-out-of-control fortissimo, and a pianissimo with immense underlying energy.
Right near the end of the movement they achieve a tone I have never heard on ANY recording of any chamber music. I have not seen the score of the quartets, so I do not know whether Beethoven asked for a "sur ponticello" (playing with the bow near the bridge) in the pianissimo passage just before the end of the section. Some quartets merely play the passage pianissimo, some venture their bowings down toward the bridge to give a little bit of an edge. The Tokyo Quartet, however, REALLY pushes the envelope! They play that passage so close to the bridge that it takes on an ethereal, other-wordly air. For that short passage, the instruments simply do not sound like a string quartet. It is impossible to adequately describe in words -- you have to hear it. If you don't get goosebumps, pinch yourself -- you're not really listening. I would buy (actually, have already bought) this box set just for that 15 seconds of unbelievable transcendence.
On the whole, the slow movements are played with a calm, understaded reverence -- and frequently, very little vibrato (e.g. Op. 132). The faster movements are played with a controlled fire, settling down at times to achieve the requisite tension that builds up to the next forte section; at other times bursting into flames.
One last note: I think the "star" of the group (or at least this recording), is Harada, the cellist. He plays with a big, open tone, providing a little more support to the group than the average cellist. But he also knows when to back off and become a perfectly matched equal to the other three.