Beethoven string quartets in the 21st century

June 4, 2019, 7:11 AM · A fortnight ago for the first time in my life I came away from a string quartet concert feeling angry, and I've only just calmed down sufficiently to write about it. It would be unkind to name the group concerned but you ruined my evening, Doric Quartet, so there!

The final item was Beethoven's Op.131 which the cellist introduced as one of the greatest works ever written. Normally I'd agree with him but this performance had everything I hate - indiscriminate use of acidulous, vibratoless tone, great bulges on long notes, every sforzando like a small explosion (even at the back of the hall I was wincing), tempi all chosen to be slightly different from the norm, marked tempo variations where none are indicated in the score, zero sense of repose and intimacy, "value added" in every bar, all apparently about "listen to us, aren't we original?".

Having since heard some other recent performances of late Beethoven on the radio and the web I see this as an encroaching trend. Whose idea? On the web site of the Elias Quartet an article by Professor Clive Brown entitled "Performing Beethoven’s string quartets in the twenty-first century: received tradition and historical evidence" sums up the issue as follows: “How, then, can a modern string quartet meet the challenge of exploring the musical expectations that lay behind Beethoven’s notation while simultaneously conveying the music to its listeners in a manner that not only connects with their modern sensibilities, but also stimulates them to see the music in a new light?”. So it seems he's advocating an unholy mishmash of HIP with trendy crowd-pleasing innovations. Some performers now seem to feel it necessary, not only to abandon anachronistic habits of style and interpretation but introduce speculative ones of their own in the belief (or hope?) that this might get them closer to “authenticity” while at the same time connecting with “modern sensibilities” and revealing the music “in a new light”.

Of course we simply don't know what Beethoven wanted or expected to hear. Take the matter of strict tempi; even in HIP circles nobody messes too much with the tempi of Beethoven's symphonies, because the role of the early 19th century conductor was simply to get the band going and keep it together. Expressive rubato simply wasn't a possibility, and in the piano sonatas you won't find many present-day pianists indulging in it either. Why do accomplished string quartet players, who in the past have shown almost religious devotion to the letter of the score, now feel it necessary to go practically to the opposite extreme?

I don't suppose there are many HIP musicologists or practitioners reading this, but does anyone actually enjoy hearing Beethoven played this way?

Replies (38)

June 4, 2019, 7:29 AM · Calm down.
Stiffs like you are the reason why my classmates laugh when I first tell them I listen to classical music.

It's fine for you to dislike a performance. But to be angry because a quartet didn't play a done-to-death piece the same tried-and-true way? Ridiculous!

June 4, 2019, 8:13 AM · Rude.
Edited: June 4, 2019, 8:28 AM · I don't see how it's rude to give a poor review of a professional performance.


It seems to me (though I can't prove it) that there are more quartets out there than ever. Maybe it reflects diminishing job prospects in orchestras or academia, or maybe graduates are being urged to be more entrepreneurial. Every year our local chamber music series gets one group after another I've never heard of.
According to the marketing, they're all highly polished competition-winning virtuosic players.
And according to the photos, I guess being good-looking is mandatory these days.

Maybe with all these quartets competing in the marketplace, there's more pressure to distinguish themselves with their interpretation? I guess it's either that, or play a lot of modern stuff that might turn off audiences.

Edited: June 4, 2019, 9:20 AM · The Doric is a fine quartet.

Looks like the problem here is that this particular performance of LvB 131 did not align with what the OP has in mind.

I would say, that's why we go to live performances. They're not a jukebox.

Oh, and on the more general terms the title of the topic is alluding to, I think Beethoven string quartet playing is in very good shape these days. Used to be Beethoven was played as the sort of holiest of holies. These days he's played in a much more visceral way.

June 4, 2019, 9:11 AM · "And according to the photos, I guess being good-looking is mandatory these days."

As we grow older (and wiser, in some cases), younger people start getting better and better looking. Not because that's all they do, but just because they're younger.

Especially in chamber music it's a rally weird thing to throw at the performers, because chamber music concerts are notoriously casual with many a Birckenstock and plaid shirt in the audience. It's one of the things I have always loved about going to chamber music, the complete unwordliness of the proceedings.

June 4, 2019, 9:36 AM · there is nothing new anyone's going to say about vibrato on this forum so I'll skip that.

But tempo and rubato - interesting point. Beethoven was the first major composer to write with metronome markings, but in his correspondence he made it clear that they were only intended to govern the opening of pieces, and performers were meant to vary tempo as they went in accordance with the mood of the music.

So tempo variations not marked in the score are absolutely normal and expected in Beethoven. (He rarely marked an accel or rall, and often diminuendo is a tempo as well as dynamic indication...)

June 4, 2019, 10:03 AM · Is this possibly related to grantsmanship? A composer I recently talked to bemoaned the need to use non-conventional scales, non-melodic forms etc as that was the only way to get funded. Perhaps there is the same thing in funding for chamber music that you have to 'give a fresh interpretation' to be funded.

Its not something I know a lot about but would love to hear if this might be a factor.

June 4, 2019, 10:33 AM · Speaking of vibrato, I heard the Arnold Rose Quartet do 131 recently. The first movement had a very 19th-century approach to tone color, which made it almost reminiscent of the Art of Fugue. On YouTube, if you are interested.

Rose was Mahler’s concertmaster as well as brother in law.

June 4, 2019, 10:50 AM · For a quartet to go the whole way in HIP Beethoven would they not be using plain gut strings, including the E, tuned to a pitch appropriate to Beethoven's era, whatever that pitch may have been (lower than A440)? And using bows of the era, probably not late baroque and perhaps not the new Tourtes, but possibly transitional?

When it comes to Beethoven's piano pieces it's worth noting that performances on the fortepiano are not uncommon.

June 4, 2019, 11:01 AM · Elise - that hadn't occurred to me but I'm not sure where one would go to get a grant for playing Beethoven, no matter how well in tune with "modern sensibilities" one might be. And it's not as if the Doric were playing to an audience of forward-looking Generation Y types thirsting for musical revolution. Looking around I just saw the usual crowd of ancients. At the end quite a few of them looked as pissed-off as we were.

And Scott - yes, I don't think anybody knows quite what to do with chamber music in the 21st century to keep it alive, so they're all thrashing around for new gimmicks. The best thing the Doric played was Martinu's 3rd quartet from the 1930's which I enjoyed but was way too modern for most of the audience.

June 4, 2019, 11:08 AM · I heard the Danish Quartet play 130 with the Grosse Fuge a year or two ago, and they were LOCKED IN.

Here's the 131. If you get a chance, these guys and the Jerusalem Quartet are the two that have really stuck out to me in the last few years of hearing groups live. Although The Danish Quartet switches violinists, and I really think the guy playing 2nd here should just be their permanent 1st, but I guess quartet politics or something.

June 4, 2019, 12:14 PM · If you look at the Doric's gruelling schedule (and they don't play the same program every night) you'll conclude they are not looking for grants. They're a working quartet, paying their way.

The number of "they're only here for the grant money" or "they're just a bunch of goodlooking kids" theories is rather surprising.

June 4, 2019, 1:53 PM · Christian - that sounds fantastic, I'll listen to it all tomorrow and hopefully recover my equilibrium. But imagine it 30% slower with the sforzandi played so hard the notes went flat...
June 4, 2019, 1:54 PM · One thing to remember is that Beethoven's last few quartets (and op. 131 was his last composed, in 1826), like his last few piano sonatas were probably intended to be very personal, and he did not anticipate they would ever be performed in public. They also tend to be very forward-looking and modern. So, IMHO, it is unclear that the A-415 crowd or the HIP folks could say anything really useful about them.
Edited: June 4, 2019, 2:08 PM · I would emphasize the "probably" in the last post, because it's not true.

Exhibit A to Z: Beethoven sold the late quartets to a publisher, and fully expected them to be played in public, preferably with succes. Schuppanzigh (friend of LvB) and his quartet did not only play them at noble houses, but also at subscription concerts.

That is why he wrote another final movement for the B flat major quartet, to supplant the rather difficult sounding Grosse Fuge (but also as a way to get paid twice).

June 4, 2019, 2:10 PM · Steve, I get it. I kinda was skeptical when I started reading your original post, but I get pretty heated about concerts I go to, especially when it's just bad but the audience is giving a standing ovation. Sometimes I wonder "Am I out of touch?", but then I realize that "no, it is the children who are wrong."

I heard the Mosaique quartet (Last year? Two years ago?), I guess, and they played on gut strings for some reason, and after hearing them live, that's the only thing I can tell you about that concert. It's all marketing, dancing around, "knowing the composers intentions" and a bunch of other stuff, like my ears need help to really hear the music. I heard the St. Lawrence Quartet, and they did a shortened program so that they could spend the first 15 minutes explaining how Haydn is actually great and that I should really like it, saying something to the effect of 'You know, we would play these Haydn quartets for audiences and they would barely have a reaction, so we thought maybe the audience wasn't getting it." No bro, Haydn isn't the problem here, and his esoteric music doesn't need your powerpoint presentation.

Curse my bottomless gallbladder!

June 4, 2019, 2:37 PM · the obvious reason why the Mosaiques played on gut strings is that violinists etc in the nineteenth century did so, too, deep into the 20th C actually.
June 4, 2019, 3:21 PM · Herman, I replace my strings like every couple of months. These guys need to stop being so cheap!
June 4, 2019, 3:31 PM · Another vote for the Jerusalem Quartet's Beethoven. I love those guys! I have the big beastly (but cheap!) Dover book of the Beethoven quartet scores, and I try to play along with the easier movements. Real fun!

I also saw the St. Lawrence Quartet play the 131. It was fantastic. Geoff Nuttall gave a mini-lecture on it beforehand where they demonstrated a few of the themes and told us what we should be listening for. Great!

Scott wrote, "It seems to me (though I can't prove it) that there are more quartets out there than ever. Maybe it reflects diminishing job prospects in orchestras or academia."

I have another theory. Please excuse me if this is a little controversial, but I wonder if reaching a "sufficient level" of technique and musicality has become such a rich-person's game (fueled by the large increase in income disparities over the last 40 years), such that basically you can expect one or more of the members of any young quartet to come from families capable of subsidizing their efforts at a significant level.

June 4, 2019, 3:35 PM · Christian wrote, "I get pretty heated about concerts I go to..."

Yeah! You should! We're not only paying ready money but we're also investing our time and our mental/emotional energy in listening, and we are the kind of people (here on who dive in! I'm usually the guy in the audience who is wiping tears off his face for half of any quartet recital because I enjoy allowing music to have a strong effect on me. That's what I've paid for. However if there are problems or if the quartet has off-putting mannerisms or whatever (which I see about a third of the time), I just zero that out. I don't feel I need to "go negative" and if I do, I try to do it in a gentle, tactful way. But that's just me.

Edited: June 4, 2019, 5:07 PM · I like to think it's some kind of public service I'm doing, because the marketing in classical music is so relentlessly positive, and so many are concerned about shrinking markets and attention-spans that I just don't see negative criticism anywhere, which has the unfortunate effect for me of making it seem like everyone giving public performances is playing at the same level, when there is a stark difference between performances and performers (And I try to once in a while give a second chance). My problems with this are a microcosm of my problems with capitalism, ad-culture and the widening of middlebrow culture more broadly, but I'm more invested in music.

Of course, I know my ego is tied up with it too. I could (and do) rant in circles endlessly, but I tend to read pandering and condescension into certain musical mannerisms and flaws. Maybe a wealth of good recordings has spoiled me? Maybe I'm envious? I like to think that I give extramusical mannerisms a pass, and that my issues are with truly thoughtless musical choices, but de gustibus...

Anyway, I think I'll self-soothe with a few hours of Lola Astanova.

Edited: June 4, 2019, 6:48 PM · "Of course we simply don't know what Beethoven wanted or expected to hear. " We do. He expected to hear everything, but could not.
Edited: June 4, 2019, 7:49 PM · I believe it is generally known that Beethoven wrote many of his later quartets as examples of the art of composition rather than works intended to be performed. What he apparently didn't appreciate, strangely enough for someone so strikingly innovative, is that others would not only build on his work but innovate even further -- beyond the horizon of his imagination. Late Beethoven is indeed beautiful, but it's not untouchable. The fact that we can enjoy Op. 131 should be credited, at least in part, to other more recent composers who expanded the limits of our musical sensibilities. We can appreciate late Beethoven in a much richer context than he ever could.
June 5, 2019, 1:36 AM · Heated, yes indeed, and the greater the work the more intense the heat. I thought my responses might cool down with age, but not so. A few more years and I'll be storming the stage with one intent or another.
Edited: June 5, 2019, 5:31 AM · "I believe it is generally known that Beethoven wrote many of his later quartets as examples of the art of composition rather than works intended to be performed. "

What is "generally known" isn't necessarily true, particularly in the case of semi-legendary figures like Beethoven (Van Gogh, Picasso, Mozart, Homer etc).

Beethoven wrote the late quartets just like the other quartets with the intent they were published for money and performed. As they were, by the above mentioned Schuppanzigh quartet, both in private, aristocratic settings and publicly at subscription concerts.

Like I said before, the extra final movement for the Op. 130 quartet, in lieu of the Grosse Fuge, is the material indication that Beethoven wanted these quartets performed and wanted them to enjoy success.

The idea that the Late Quartets were sort of Beethoven's legacy of abstract philosophical music, his 'Art of the Fugue' as it were (and yes, people have made orchestral versions of these pieces, paradoxically obscuring what they were about), was propagated by Beethoven apostles / mythmakers after he was gone. It's not true.

June 5, 2019, 6:15 AM · Let me add that the idea of composing a nr of quartets that move the art of the form forward is not unique to Beethoven's late quartets.
Almost every sixpack of quartets Haydn published moved the goalposts forward and Mozart's Op 10 (the socalled Haydn Quartets) were similarly progressive.
June 5, 2019, 10:56 AM · Sorry for my ignorance. I educated myself on this issue primarily through Wikipedia and such.
June 5, 2019, 11:50 AM · That's only normal, Paul.
Edited: June 5, 2019, 11:55 AM · Update on my feverish brain condition. Today I played the Danish Quartet's youtube videos of Op131 and Op74 and the contrast with the Doric a fortnight ago was complete. No quasi-HIP gimmicks, exaggerated gestures and mucked-about tempi, just fabulously concentrated playing. The scherzo of Op131 stimulated a brief burst of spontaneous applause and I nearly joined in. This actually created a useful moment for quartet and audience to regroup before the deadly serious following Adagio, and to end with the most exciting account of the finale I ever heard. The Danish Quartet came on the scene about 10 years ago but their style is firmly rooted in the best 20th century practice. I know whose camp I'm in.
June 7, 2019, 3:14 PM · Somewhat belatedly I want to horn in with some considerations that have not come up.

Firstly I think we should give credit to people who try to come up with something new, even if we conclude that they failed to convince. I still prefer that over performances that correctly play all the notes at the conventional tempi and otherwise leave me cold.

It is definitely true that people play different now from the way they played when I was young. Obviously the HIP people had lot to do with that. For example not long ago I found on youtube a performance of Bach's double concerto with Menuhin and David Oistrach. The tempi in all three movements were well below what one hears nowadays, nobody now would dare to play it that way I think. To be honest I find it pretty awful. But 40 years ago I might have liked it. Or: When I was young all shifts had to be inaudible, now portamenti are used by many players. I expect this evolution of taste to continue (if this really makes a piece "acceptable to a 21st century sensibility" is a question I can't answer).

The third point is this: In (classical) music we are very focussed on playing music "original" i.e. as close as we can to the composer's intention (or what we assume this intention to be). The only freedom we allow ourselves is to skip repeats. Theater people do the very opposite: They play Hamlet in Nazi costume, they make cuts in practically every performance of even the "holiest" classics, they pull every stunt that hits their imagination. This is not meant as a criticism of musicians; I don't like people taking too many liberties with a score either. But I wonder why the difference?

Edited: June 7, 2019, 4:51 PM · Couple of quick thoughts.

1) I really love the Doric Quartet's Haydn. Lots of colors and surprises. A lot of no-vibrato chords, which sound beautiful but they have to be perfectly in tune. I look forward to hearing a 131 from them.

2) I love 131 but it really is crazy bizarre writing that shattered all the rules of the time. I think of it a little like the Goya "black paintings" done at the end of his life. Given that Beethoven shattered convention, it seems only fair to have 21st century performers of 131 free to shatter convention in their own way.

4) The curse of being a virtuoso string quartet in this era is that there are so many other good ones out there and almost every one of them feels like the world needs to hear their take on Beethoven 131. But the blessing of being in this era is that risk-taking is encouraged more than ever and people want to hear original takes on famous works -- even if it may not be their cup of tea.

I have always loved the Guarneri late Beethoven but when I hear a young quartet, the last thing I want them to do is try to ape what the Guarneri were doing. We all want to hear something fresh. And the result is that some quartets like the Doric push the envelope a lot.

If you want to hear an outrageously good but more conventional (maybe more tasteful) take, check out the Artemis 131. I would also love to hear the Dover -- it's probably about time for them to record late Beethoven. I think the Dover is in a lot of ways the torch-bearer for the Guarneri right now, but they're not bound by what their teachers taught them -- they do their own thing.

5) If you're coming away from hearing Beethoven 131 angry, old Ludwig might be very pleased to hear that.

6) I love playing late Beethoven -- don't totally love sitting through a whole concert of it. I respect it, I learn from it, but I don't necessarily love hearing it. Playing it, however, whether 1st, 2nd or viola, I always have a blast.

There's a part of me that thinks Beethoven wrote these more for the players than for any audience. They are packed with little gestures that it almost seem wrong for a public performance. I doubt Beethoven really envisioned them in a big concert hall. They were highly personal works for him, even though he did submit them for publication and have them performed. Again, maybe a little like Goya's "black paintings" which were really painted by the painter for the painter.

June 7, 2019, 8:34 PM · Good points, Thomas, except I think every quartet is honestly playing the music as they hear it. Not because they want to be "new" or "shocking" or even "different."

And about the composers intentions, it's always good to keep the alternative op 130 ending in mind if you're thinking LvB wasn't thinking of bringing these works before the public.

Edited: June 8, 2019, 2:27 AM · Albrecht and Thomas - All well said and duly acknowledged. I wasn't going to bring Haydn into the discussion but it seems many 21st century groups consider him even more suitable for "up-to-date" treatment. Strangely the same doesn't seem to be true of Mozart. Why is that do you think? During my coaching from the Delme Quartet I remember it being said that Mozart was less enjoyed by the players because he specified his wishes more precisely and left less room for creative interpretation.

The theatre analogy is interesting, particularly when you think of opera. What you hear is a more-or-less sincere attempt to deliver what the composer intended, but what you often see is anything but! Gives me a nasty attack of cognitive dissonance. And when I think of the concert I'm complaining of in terms of painting analogies I think more of what style moustache you might paint on the Mona Lisa - Fu Manchu? Handlebar? Toothbrush?

June 9, 2019, 1:46 PM · Certainly Beethoven intended the late quartets to be performed to some degree. He loved this music (didn't he express at some point that 131 was his personal favorite?)

But at the same time Beethoven had made his living as a performer and understood Vienna audiences. He had to know that the late quartets weren't going to be popular with the average audience or even with the musical intelligentsia.

Critics were almost all befuddled. Only a handful of people at the time really got them. One was a teenager named Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn managed to get his hands on copies before 131 and 132 had been published, and then proved he understood them by weaving so many of Beethoven's ideas into his first quartet. If you love late Beethoven, Mendelssohn Op. 13 is a blast because it is young Mendelssohn assimilating late Beethoven and then putting his own twist on it.

June 9, 2019, 1:56 PM · Steve, it's definitely true that Mozart, especially late Mozart -- is pretty specific, more specific than Haydn, less specific than Beethoven.

But still, there is a lot of room to play with tempos and colors. Depending on whether people are playing with period instruments, baroque or modern bows, gut or wound strings, vibrato or no vibrato, there is lots of room for every quartet to put their own stamp on them.

The dynamics and tempo for the famous opening of K. 590 are clearly written out, and yet there are still 3 or 4 ways to bow it, and each way the effect is a little bit different.

But anyway, I think there's nothing better than living at a time when there are maybe 20 or 30 string quartets of the highest caliber, and they're not nearly as bound by tradition as performers were 30 or 40 years ago.

And for very little money we can hear all these different styles on Spotify or YouTube and, if we live in the right place, we can see a lot of these quartets perform. For people who love classical music (and yes, our numbers are not huge and not growing), there has never been a better time.

June 9, 2019, 2:05 PM · Only just picked up on this thread.

I heard the Dorics a few months ago, and they definitely have their own style which I understand people will have opinions about. Unfortunately late Beethoven wasn't in their programme here, the closest in style (though not in period) being Bartok 5. Much more than any other string quartet I recall they brought out the inner parts. That brought to Bartok a surprisingly lush sonority, in total contrast to many performances which accentuate the spikiness and dissonances.

Their approach also worked well in a Haydn quartet. But the third piece on the programme was Dvorak, and for that I was less convinced.

Edited: June 10, 2019, 4:36 AM · My previous experience of the Dorics was solely in 20th century repertoire and I was very impressed. I've now heard their youtube clip of Haydn op.20 no.6 and it's absolutely fine with none of the exaggerated gestures and bulging sounds I found so ugly the other week. That was recorded way back in 2014 and they've recently acquired a new second violin. I'm currently listening to the new lineup in Schubert's G major quartet from the Wigmore Hall in January this year. So far, so very good (although if Schubert had wanted the opening of the allegro molto moderato played molto adagio, wouldn't he have specified it?).

In the past I've wondered whether some artistes use concerts in smaller venues to experiment with novel ideas that they wouldn't necessarily want to become their norm. On one occasion I was rather taken aback when a well-known violinist played an entire programme (including a Prokofiev sonata) senza vibrato, only reverting to his normal style for the encores. This wasn't much appreciated by the audience.

I have a radical suggestion for how chamber music might find a niche in the 21st century: on the premise that most works were written either for amateurs or for professionals to perform in relatively small venues, wouldn't it be historically appropriate to scale down the sound and gestures and shift the emphasis away from quasi-symphonic drama towards a greater sense of inclusion and intimacy?

June 10, 2019, 2:56 PM · As to this scaling down the tone: An anecdote from one of my violin teachers who was a member of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. He remembered a solo recital by the guitarist Andres Segovia. Segovia was playing in the "Grosse Tonhallesaal" (the symphony hall for 1000 people if memory serves), fully sold out obviously, all by himself on the stage. And of course a guitar has very limited sound and projection. My teacher said it wasn't a problem: the audience was quiet like he had never heard before. No coughs, no whispers, nothing. They were all mesmerized into quiet.

His conclusion from this was to forget about worrying too much about projection and big tone. If you don't play so loud listeners will be quieter and maybe even pay more attention.

I once read the book by the Guarneri quartet (about quartet playing) and one thing that struck me is the amount of worrying about projection that they seem to engage in. I believe that this at least in part due to the usually too large venues in which top quartets are used to perform. And maybe Steve is right: Maybe greater intimacy can be generated by forgetting about projection. To me, members of a quartet (or any chamber ensemble) are primarily playing for each other, keeping that in mind might also help keeping things more intimate.

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