Ludwig van Beethoven’s 16 “String Quartets” and the “GrosseFuge” (which was the original finale of the Opus 130 Quartet) were composed between 1798 and 1826. These works serve as bookends to his compositional career and serve as a musical “Mount Everest” of the genre. Listening to the entire set provides an opportunity to experience each of them, in relationship to each other. These comparisons also provide a chance to observe the growth and development of Beethoven’s compositional technique. However, they also require an extreme level of concentration from the listener, who ideally should not attempt to hear too many of them in one sitting.
The six-DVD set I heard (three volumes with two discs per volume), recorded by the Alban Berg Quartett in June 1989 was a good one, as each disc contained two or three quartets from different stages in Beethoven’s career. Each disc of these recordings of live performances at the Mozartsaal of the Wiener Konzerthaus was a well-rounded concert, albeit an all-Beethoven one.
I’ve always felt that repeated listening sessions of the Beethoven String Quartets were required, to really get to know them. I believe they have greater intellectual “weight” than those of Haydn, Mozart or Schubert, which go down easier. Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, I would discourage engaging in marathon listening sessions of these works.
On this occasion, the Alban Berg Quartett (1970-2008) consisted of first violinist Günter Pichler (1940-), second violinist Gerhard Schulz (1931-2008), violist Thomas Kakuska (1940-2005), and cellist Valentin Erben (1945-). While they had performed these works in the studio, they also wanted to record live audio and video versions, and the results on these DVDs speak for themselves.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not nearly as familiar with these masterworks as I should be. This was my primary reason for listening to them again, as an integral set. Although I’d heard each of them several times in the past, I’d probably heard only one or two sets, and that was many years ago. I say this, because when wholeheartedly recommending this set, I can’t claim a plethora of knowledge of other available recordings, to play the “comparison game.”
Nevertheless, these performances reflect a near telepathic communication between the players, and it would seem hard to equal and well-nigh impossible to beat them. These discs were topnotch, on all levels.
At the same time, I also believe that this music is too great for one set of musicians and I would encourage others to hear many different interpretations, to gain greater insight. I don’t think that I’ve ever been so impressed by a string quartet, as I have by the Alban Berg Quartett. It was also nice to be able to see as well as hear these fine performances.
My only quibble is technical, as I could hear an occasional bit of “pre echo” from the audio end of these productions.