In his 16 quartets for two violins, viola, and cello, Beethoven created a Mount Everest for string players and some of the most sublime, unforgettable music ever written. Continuing to astound listeners after 200 years, these glorious quartets give voice to the innermost landscape of the human heart and spirit. They stand, like Michelangelo's statues or the plays of Shakespeare, at the pinnacle of Western art.
Following the Artemis Quartet‘s prizewinning Beethoven Quartet cycle on Virgin Classics, the Berlin-based ensemble has recorded Schubert’s last three quartets, works that Artemis cellist Eckart Runge praises for both their “incredible simplicity and purity” and their “almost terrifying modernism”. Awarded both Germany‘s prestigious Klassik ECHO award and France’s Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros in 2011 for their Virgin Classics Beethoven cycle, the members of the Artemis Quartet now release an all-Schubert CD. It presents the composer’s final three string quartets: No 13 in A minor, ‘Rosamunde’ (which draws on his incidental music for Helmina von Chezy’s play Rosamunde); No 14 in D minor, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (with its haunting second movement based on his song Der Tod und das Mädchen), and No 15 in G major.
The first of the Artemis Quartet’s Virgin Classics CDs of Beethoven Quartets was released in Autumn 2005. Now, nearly six years later, the complete Beethoven cycle becomes available in a box of 7 CDs which includes two previously unreleased items: the quartet No 10, op 74, known as the ‘Harp’, and a transcription for string quartet, proudly made by Beethoven himself, of the Piano Sonata No 9, op 14.
The string quartet is the highest achievement of classical music. How to describe what a great string quartet is/does? Four voices that sing, simultaneously dependently and independently. Or, as someone else once said, "a conversation among four very intelligent and witty persons." After almost 200 years, Beethoven's 16 quartets still stand as the acme of the form, notwithstanding brilliant contributions from just about every important composer since. There are many wonderful performances of the Beethoven quartets available on CD, but none are more distinguished than these performances by the Talich Quartet. More than any other ensemble in my experience, the Talich's performances proclaim that intimacy is the true experience of quartet playing (and listening). Every phrase is projected with exquisite attention to the constantly shifting balance of light and shadow that is the hallmark of the greatest quartet playing. Tempos are vigorous without being rushed, rubato is applied in the subtlest way imaginable, and dynamics seem to explore impossible distinctions between pp and ppp. In short, every performance in this set invites you to carefully listen to Beethoven's musical argument as you've never listened before.T. Beers – Amazon
The Végh Quartet was not only one of the finest string quartets from mid-twentieth century Europe, but its style was never subjected to radical change over the years from personnel changes because the four original players remained members for 38 of the 40 years of the ensemble's existence. Its style evolved in subtle ways, of course, but its essential character endured until 1978: the quartet was Central European in its sound, with a bit more prominence given to the cello in order to build tonal qualities from the bottom upward. The Végh Quartet was best known for its cycles – two each – of the Beethoven and Bartók quartets. It also performed and recorded many of the Haydn quartets, as well as numerous other staples of the repertory by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, and Debussy. For a group that disbanded in 1980, its recordings are still quite popular, with major efforts available in varied reissues from Music & Arts, Archipel, Naïve, and Orfeo.
Writing in 29:4 about the Hagen’s fine CD accounts of Beethoven Quartets Nos. 12 and 15, I noted two salient features of its approach: a sonority that in its freedom from lushness and excessive vibrato echoes (without duplicating) “period” sonority; and a style suggestive of how the music is far closer to the composer’s middle period than we often think. In a similar vein, this is a tough, aggressive No. 16, yet one tempered by delicacy where apt and projected with sensitivity to the music’s pointed humor—a performance style that one probably was not likely to encounter 50 years ago. And fine though the Beethoven is, the Mozart may be even better, as commanding and sensitive account of the work as I have ever heard. For one thing, Sabine Meyer is superb, a true virtuoso who is capable of rendering the music’s gentler moments with a tender delicacy that is as arresting as her rapidly articulated runs in which every note is given its clearly articulated due.