The “Beethoven String Quartets, Op. 18, No. 4, Op. 59, No. 1,
and Op. 131” were performed by the Juilliard String Quartet
in 1975 at the Bibliotheksaal, Polling, Bavaria. This superbly
recorded and filmed concert gives the viewer/listener a nice
overview of Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) compositional
career, over a 27-year period.

What stylistic range these three quartets cover! The common
division of the “String Quartets” written by Beethoven refers
to six “early” quartets, five “middle” quartets, and five “late”
quartets, and it’s fascinating to chart his development as a
composer throughout this course. Needless to say, the early
quartets are the most “classical” in style, and shorter than
the later quartets. “String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4” is performed
on this disc, and dates from 1799. The superb performances
and “give and take” between first violinist Robert Mann,
second violinist Earl Carlyss, violist Samuel Rhodes, and cellist
Joel Krosnick were imaginatively captured by the film crew.

With his 1806 composition of “String Quartet Op. 59, No. 1,”
Beethoven boldly moved into new musical territory. This work
was one of the “Razumovsky Quartets,” named after the
Russian patron of the arts who commissioned them. It is in
four movements and much longer, with a running time of
more than 40 minutes.

By 1826, the year Beethoven composed “String Quartet
No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131,” he had broken so far from
tradition, that the “classical” structure apparent even in the middle
quartets was all but unrecognizable. It was as though
Beethoven was composing in his own “devil may care,” stream
of consciousness style. This piece was in seven sections,
and also more than 40 minutes in length; however, a couple
of the sections could scarcely be called “movements.” He was
composing in a rarefied style here, and it became apparent to
me why many consider the “late” quartets to be Beethoven’s
most personal utterances. This music will always be “timeless,”
existing within its own space and adhering to its own rules. I found
it astonishing to compare works like this one with another “Quartet”
written a mere 27 years earlier. Is this the same composer?

At any rate, the performances are wonderfully rendered, and
distinguished by an incisiveness that can be lacking from other
ensembles I’ve heard, but which suits these works just fine.
I’d also like to mention the stunning setting of this film. The
interior of the Bibliotheksaal in Bavaria is quite striking.

The booklet accompanying this DVD contains an essay by
Wolfgang Stahr that is printed in three languages. I highly
recommend this one-hour and 50-minute 2009 DVD release.