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Historically-informed performances of Beethoven's Quartets

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Initial post: 22 May 2012, 11:14:12 BST
Last edited by the author on 22 May 2012, 11:23:24 BST
After the extremely entertaining and informative help I received with my request regarding Harnoncourt's cycle of Beethoven symphonies, I thought I'd follow up with a discussion on historically-informed or period instrument performances of Beethoven's String Quartets.

I have the Quartetto Italiano collect of the late quartets and, whilst in the process of researching a recording of his earlier quartets, I came across this incredibly in-depth blog taking a sort of BBC Radio 3 'Building A Library' approach comparing various recordings of each of Beethoven's quartets: http://rolf-musicblog.blogspot.fr/2012/03/beethoven-string-quartet-op127.html

I was struck by his comments on the excessive use of vibrato on many modern day recordings. Once you notice it - or have it pointed it out to you - it becomes impossible to ignore. I ended up buying the Quatuor Mosaïque's recording of Op.18 No 1 and 4 (Beethoven: String Quartets, Op 18, Nos 1 & 4 /Quatuor Mosaïques) for its minimal vibrato usages, gorgeous deep bass sound, impeccable recording and wonderful balance between the four instruments. I'll certainly be investing in more of their work.

Does anyone know if Quatuor Mosïques plan to record mid or late Beethoven quartets? There is a recording of op.131 on YouTube taken from BBC Radio 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hii2szPQ4Q

Do you have any other recommendations for minimal vibrato Beethoven quartets? I believe that the Endellion and the Hagen Quartet both embrace this style of playing, too. Do you have their Beethoven recordings? If so, how do you find them?

I'd be interested to hear your views.

Posted on 22 May 2012, 21:47:43 BST
Last edited by the author on 22 May 2012, 22:15:01 BST
Malx says:
If you are into downloads the complete quartets by the Endellions are available at a reasonable price, bit rates won't be brilliant but should give you a good idea of their performance style. Beethoven : Complete String Quartets, Quintets & Fragments

In reply to an earlier post on 23 May 2012, 16:00:25 BST
Last edited by the author on 23 May 2012, 16:05:29 BST
Hi Malx

I've listened to the Endellion Quartet on Spotify. In a comparison of their Beethoven and other HIP/period instrument versions, I came out in the following favour:

1. Quatuor Mosaiques
2. Hagen Quartett [sic]
3. Endellion Q.
4. Eroica Q. (a tad too dry overall, although I liked their 3rd movement of Op.135, but found the 1st and 4th are played far too fast for my tastes!)

However, the comparison was limited by the fact only the Endellions have recorded all of Beethoven's quartets.

Posted on 23 May 2012, 22:31:34 BST
Malx says:
T: I have a liking for the Mosaiques in Haydn, but don't know their Beethoven. The Endellions to me are consistant in the standard of their performances I've yet to hear anything that I've disliked by them. I'm not sure I'd put them in either the HIP/period instrument camp but they certainly don't overdo the vibrato.
If I'm honest my current favourites in Beethoven are the Takacs quartet, just wonderful playing. Beethoven: String Quartets Beethoven: Late String Quartets Beethoven: The Early Quartets.
Give them a try on Spotify.

Posted on 24 May 2012, 01:10:32 BST
Last edited by the author on 24 May 2012, 01:11:46 BST
Edgar Self says:
Archibudelli I didn't care for. Mosaiques are impressive. On the whole I prefer non-HIP in Beethoven, the Borodin Quartet with either Mikhael Kopelman or Rostislav Dubinsky as leader and their great cellist Berlinsky. I saw Avalon Quartet play Op. 59/1 Rasumovsky No. 1 today with minimal vibrato, poor tuning, and uncertain E-string tone by their first violin, all at Alban Berg tempi, i.e. too fast, especially the primo, so much so that many passages were scrambled and unclear. The Borodins cited are ideal in it, for me.

The great cellist Emanuel Feuermann once sat in with the Busch Quartet for the missing Hermann Busch and was shocked, calling them shameful, disgraceful, and amateurish. Not for nothing was Feuermann called the Heifetz of the cello.

Posted on 24 May 2012, 06:03:00 BST
[Deleted by the author on 9 Nov 2013, 16:24:42 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jun 2012, 22:04:38 BST
Last edited by the author on 26 Jun 2012, 22:05:31 BST
B. Schembri says:
Hello, I am trying to find recordings of Beethoven's string quartets by the Borodin Quartet with Dubinsky as leader. I have only managed to find the Chandos CD of the early quartets op 18. Any information would be appreciated. thanks.

Posted on 26 Jun 2012, 22:28:56 BST
[Deleted by the author on 26 Jun 2012, 22:30:12 BST]

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2012, 16:49:03 BST
Last edited by the author on 27 Jun 2012, 23:56:32 BST
Edgar Self says:
B. Schembri -- There should be a complete cycle of Beethoven quartets available somewhere in Russia with Rostislov Dubinsky leading the more-or-less original formation of the Borodin Quartet. The only ones I have are the six Op. 18 quartets you mention. The next formation of the Borodins with the excellent Mikhael Kopelman as leader, recorded many, but still not all, of Beethoven's quartets with their great cellist Valentin Berlinsky. I saw him play with younger members of what was still called the Borodin String Quatet.

After Dubinsky emigrated from Russia, his name disappeared from Soviet archives, and some of the Shostakovich quartets that he made were falsely attributed to the quartet's later formation.

He founded the Borodin Trio in the U.S. with his wife. I saw them play once, Tchaikovsky trio, and spoke to Dubinsky afterward about his book, "Stormy Applause". He said he might write more, even another book, but I don't know of one.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2012, 22:22:59 BST
Roasted Swan says:
Stormy Applause is an excellent book - including such gems as Rudolf Barshai was the original viola player in the original line-up but was also the communist informer inside the quartet and as such was not much liked by his colleagues hence his brief tenure (or so I recall............!). I page-turned for one of the Borodin Trio Chandos recordings when a student and chatted with Dubinsky while the others were listening to a play-back - a great man.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2012, 23:11:23 BST
B. Schembri says:
Thanks for this interesting post. I will keep looking for the rest of the recordings with Dubinsky then. They must have been issued by now, hopefully.

Posted on 28 Jun 2012, 00:03:44 BST
Edgar Self says:
A very interesting post, Nick, thanks. There is one other recording, Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" on a Russian Disc CD, with I think Shostakovich's eighth quartet, where Dubinsky leads the Borodin Quartet. Ill try to confirm this; it and I are out of pocket. Rostropovich may also have played briefly with them under their first name, the Moscow Conservatory Quartet, when they were all students.

Their set of Shostakovich's quartets and quintet with Richter are other favorites. Between them and the very different Beethoven Quartet, who played most of the premieres, there are some fascinating comparisons. Dubinsky has some marvelous pages on Shostakovich in his book "Stormy Applause". Shostakovich liked the Borodins and regularly sent them his scores as they appeared, "send these to, you know, the young ones" he told his secretary. Dubinsky tells an unforgettable story about their playing the eight quartet for Shostakovich, when he was so overcome he couldn't speak. They quietly packed up and left; he called them next day.

Posted on 28 Jun 2012, 09:32:23 BST
B. Schembri says:
The Borodin Qtet story is an epic. Each historical member had/has his own version of how the quartet was formed and about the various changes, always dramatic.
I have a personal preference for the Dubinsky period recordings, which is why I am trying to trace the rest of the Beethoven quartets recorded on those days.

Posted on 28 Jun 2012, 09:46:46 BST
I have no Borodib Qt recordings with Dubinsky but I do have a 2-CD set from Chandos entitled 'In memory of a great artist - Rotislav Dubinsky'. It consists of individual movements from various works, most of them played by the Borodin Trio.

Posted on 28 Jun 2012, 12:25:45 BST
Roasted Swan says:
The other story - again from memory so apologies if the specifics are off - which I loved from Stormy Applause. The Soviet State decided on the name any budding group could use. The nature of the self-important bureaucracy was that they would veto your 1st choice. Hence the art was NOT to apply for the name you wanted first up - the yet-to-be-Borodins WANTED to be the Borodin Quartet so asked to be the Glinka Quartet or some-such which was then refused so they had to 'make do' with being the Borodins. I seem to remember also that Dubinsky said that by the time of the later Shostakovich quartets DSCH wanted the younger Borodins to have the premieres but that choice was again State sanctioned and went to the senior Beethovens. Given that the Beethoven's members were the dedicatees of the late works the implication is DSCH respected them as individuals but thought the younger group were technically better....?

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2012, 13:06:00 BST
Last edited by the author on 29 Jun 2012, 15:24:56 BST
Edgar Self says:
In "Stormy Applause", Dubinsky also tells the story of a new quartet by Alfred Schnittke and how they managed to program it outside of Russia on a tour.

Another telling tale is of Haydn's "Seven Last Words", which the Borodin Quartet wanted to pla ini Moscow. Their first application was flatly denied because the work "had no relevance to Soviet social realism.": Then the au9thorities relented.. Yes, they could play it, but just call it "The Seven Words" and leave Christ out of it. Shortly after, a frantic call came through from the apparatchiks: "NO, don't call it "The Seven Words". Just say Haydn, Opus XX." And that's what they did.

I think of this story when I look at the movement listing for Shostakovich's 15th quartet, six in extremely slow tempi, very like those in Haydn's "Seven Last Words". Coincidence? I don't think so. As an experiment, set them side by side and see what you think. I can't think of anything similar elsewhere.

Posted on 28 Jun 2012, 23:50:39 BST
Roasted Swan says:
Not historically informed - but does anyone rate this cycle -The Essential Beethoven String Quartets - basically the complete cycle from the Vegh's for £7.99. Amazon.com has very contrasting opinions.

Posted on 29 Jun 2012, 11:45:46 BST
Why is it that there are so few period performances of Beethoven's chamber music while the market is flooded by period symphonies? And plenty of modern instrument string quartets?

Posted on 29 Jun 2012, 12:24:13 BST
Last edited by the author on 29 Jun 2012, 12:24:45 BST
B. Schembri says:
Beethoven's comment to Schuppanzigh (leader of the Razumovsky quartet, considered to be the first professional string quartet) regarding some difficulties in the performance of his later quartets :
"Do you think I worry about your lousy fiddle when the spirit moves me?".

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jun 2012, 12:35:58 BST

We can't hear that quote often enough - it is so much like Beethoven to say that!

Posted on 30 Jun 2012, 15:51:01 BST
Last edited by the author on 30 Jun 2012, 15:52:20 BST
Malx says:
The Vegh quartets set you refer to is the earlier 1952 set and for the price is well worth having. Maybe not as technically precise as some more modern recordings but good playing in decent sound. I can't compare with the later 70's recording by the same quartet as I don't know that set. I shouldn't really mention this but it is available for a pound cheaper on that other site we frequently mention at 320kbps.
If you would like to dip in a try a few well known samples the whole album is on Spotify.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Jun 2012, 16:02:25 BST
Roasted Swan says:
Thanks Malx

Posted on 7 Sep 2012, 10:27:18 BST
Last edited by the author on 7 Sep 2012, 10:28:51 BST
Another old thread resurrected, albeit slightly skewed by discussing my odyssey to select a complete set of Beethoven's quartets, not necessarily HIP (does one even exist?!) I do have a problem with excessive use of vibrato, which a lot of the old 'classic' quartets employ. Is this the so-called "colour" that reviewers often cite? I find it grating and that it distracts from the flow of the music.

I spent a few hours yesterday trawling through the usual resources (various Amazons, allmusic.com, Spotify, YouTube) to sample some of the names that often crop up in forums and reviews. It's surprising how many of the big hitters (Végh '52 and 70s, Talich) are hard to get hold of without paying hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros - on CD, at least.

Anyway, here are some discoveries that may be of interest:

1) Vermeer Quartet: Beethoven String Quartets Nos 1 - 16 [Complete]t - very little vibrato, very clean sound (re-mastered on Warner Classics) - the main complaint seems to be not employing the full range of available dynamics (ppp, ff, etc.) I have to say I like what I heard, although there is some extraneous noise (heavy breathing? bowing?) in quieter passages. It's available to hear on Spotify. A good price, too. £20

2) Borodin Quartet (Chandos) Beethoven: String Quartets - pricey (as are all Chandos CDs), gorgeous sound, judicious use of vibrato. I already have an earlier CD of Beethoven string quartets on Virgin Classics - a real treasure, esp. op.132. I'll probably invest in this at some point.

3) The Smetana Quartet Beethoven: String Quartets Nos 11-16 often gets cited as being special. I'm interested by this. Again, vibrato seems judicious not excessive. There are short samples on Amazon mp3 page or Allmusic.

4) Finally, the much-vaunted Talich Quartet cycle seems to be coming back on 9 October 2012. There's an announcement to pre-order it here on Amazon.fr.: http://www.amazon.fr/Quatuors-Cordes-Int%C3%A9grale-Ludwig-Beethoven/dp/B0090OPC2S/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_nC?ie=UTF8&coliid=IO8W8VZN5U505&colid=IGJIVVGZKCRI


So, I'm almost certainly going to invest (or get someone to invest for me for b'day/Christmas) in the Artemis Quartet cycle and the Borodin Quartet cycle on Chandos. Vermeer and Smetana are very interesting possibilities, though I'd like to hear more first. And I'll be interested to hear anyone's thoughts on the Talich cycle.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Sep 2012, 14:50:50 BST
[Deleted by Amazon on 13 Oct 2012, 19:30:30 BST]

Posted on 7 Sep 2012, 16:02:11 BST
Last edited by the author on 7 Sep 2012, 17:32:33 BST
Another contender for the 'less vibrato' crown: Beethoven: String Quartets op. 59 Razumovsky, String Quintet op. 29

*edit* 'Period performance' on modern instruments and available to listen to on Spotify.
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