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My Favorite Beethoven String Quartet Recording by Chi Lee

Beethoven’s string quartets have remained vital in the string quartet repertoire. No professional string quartet can escape including a number of Beethoven’s string quartets in its central repertoire. Why? There are a number of great composers who input much energy into the genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, Bartók, and Shostakovich. The string quartet performers surely have a wide range of repertoire choices, just like pianists and orchestras. Why can they not escape the fascination of Beethoven’s quartets?

If the works of a composer are reflections of his mind and soul throughout his life, then the string quartets of Beethoven are the crystallization of these reflections. Through the string quartets, we can see every aspect of his life experience, both physical and spiritual.

Because my quartet group is learning one of Beethoven’s quartets, I recently decided to listen to lots of great recordings. My favorite recording is the Alban Berg Quartet’s live concert, which was recorded at the Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, in 1989 and it was published by EMI classics. In this recording, I especially love the quartet in C Major, Op.18, No. 4. For the Opus 18 quartets, I not only like their diverse color and the richness, but I also think that among all of Beethoven’s early works, these quartets are very Classical in their form while demonstrating the widest array of experimentation. They show a young Beethoven, excelling in the old compositional style, with tremendous drama and innovation, looking for his path. You will not want to miss the Alban Berg Quartet’s vivid playing with such passion in the third movement and the dramatic dynamic range combined with extraordinarily beautiful melody.

The Alban Berg Quartet is definitely one of the best string quartets in the world. Through their performances I feel their respect for the composers they interpret and the music they play. The recording paper insert says that “the ABQ had already made studio recordings of all the Beethoven quartets for EMI when, in 1989, the players thought they should risk remaking the cycle ‘live’ for both audio and video. They felt that any tiny imprecisions would be more than offset by the added frisson of the live occasion, and the result bore out their optimism.” I believe that is why this recording is really special, because they make you feel like they treat every note as if it were the most vital note they have ever played.

As a violist, even though we don’t get so many beautiful melodies like the first violin, we have an important role of giving the first violin support and blending the sound together with others. There are so many incredibly blended moments, such as the beginning of the Op.131 quartet’s fourth movement, that melt your heart. I really like how Mr. Thomas Kakuska plays even just a simple long note; he makes the note so round to support the melody.

The greatness of Beethoven’s string quartets not only lies in their wide palette of style and emotions and their spectacularity, the fascination comes more from the fact that they are so real and human. Through the quartets, one can almost hold Beethoven’s hand and speak with his soul.


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