Beethoven: String Quartets 7-9 - Kuijken Quartet

Beethoven: String Quartets 7-9 - Kuijken Quartet

Challenge Classics  CC 72362 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber

Beethoven: String Quartet in F major Op. 59 No. 1, String Quartet in E minor Op. 59 No. 2, String Quartet in C major Op. 59 No. 3, String Quintet in C major Op. 29

Kuijken Quartet

Around the time the Rasumovsky Quartet's were written, Beethoven's favorite violinist, Ignaz von Schuppanzigh had begun the very first professional string quartet, thus providing Beethoven with an ideal laboratory for testing new string quartet ideas. Before this, string quartet playing was more something that happened in living rooms. Amateurs of, grantedly, good musical quality would entertain themselves among friends by playing string quartets. By writing for the Schuppanzigh quartet, which moreover would perform in public concert series, Beethoven became involved with a wholly new setting. ¬Naturally, he turned the prospect entirely to his advantage; from then on he could do as he wished in his string quartets.

“It is really almost unimaginable that the six opus 18 and the Rasumovsky quartets were a mere 5 years apart. You feel that when Beethoven wrote his opus 59 it was really ‘boiling over’ in his head. In relation to opus 18, which still leaned heavily on Haydn’s way of writing, this music is much more abstract. The string quartet must be the most abstractive apparatus in existence. That instrumental setting asks as it were that the composer dive into the essence of tonality and start making abstractions. With four entirely equal voices and the scarcest of means, Beethoven builds nearly exalted constructions. Everything that happens in this music is absolutely essential. Beethoven announces in this opus 59 an entirely new era in music.”

“In Beethoven’s later music it gets less and less necessary to play on early instruments. This music is not merely less connected to specific instruments than Beethoven’s earlier works, it is outright futuristic. The question brings to mind Beethoven’s rather testy retort when Schuppanzigh commented that his music seemed at times unplayable: “Do you actually believe that I am thinking of your miserable violin when I compose?” (Sigiswald, Sara and Veronica Kuijken speaking about Beethoven’s opus 59)

The Kuijken String Quartet has already exists almost twenty years . , make up an ensemble, which can play these recordings in a way that practically no other can.

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Reviews (2)

Review by John Miller - June 17, 2011

Beethoven's final repost to cruel Fate, which had severely limited his hearing, was to cast off his depression and challenge himself and his audiences with a new direction in composition. The String Quartets Op. 59 were a crucial part of what scholars now call his "Second Period", in which he massively expanded existing structures with complex developments, extended codas, introduced a myriad outlandish harmonic progressions - and tapped a wonderful melodic vein. The three quartets often carry the name of Count Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Vienna and a patron of Beethoven's. However, contrary to popular belief, they were not directly commissioned by him, although he did give Beethoven some money. But the Quartets were already on the way.

The key to Beethoven's musical inspiration for these quartets was instead the formation of the first professional string quartet, by Ignaz von Schuppanzigh, a close friend of Beethoven's, and a favourite violinist of the Viennese. Whereas previously quartets were performed in small informal domestic surroundings by gifted amateurs, they could now also appear before a larger (paying) public in concerts. This development motivated Beethoven to experiment gleefully with his "new music" on the ideally abstracted quartet format. The result was the three Op. 59 Quartets. They were composed in 1806, in companion with the Eroica Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Fidelio and the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas.

In the disc's useful notes, Sigiswald Kuijken, leader of the quartet which contains members from two generations of his family, describes how their ensemble was challenged to explore and discover Beethoven's extraordinary output of radical and revolutionary ideas in these quartets. Despite the difficulties posed both for players and listeners, the family hope that their new recordings will be of interest not only to experienced music-listeners, but that these wonderful works will also display their magic to relatively inexperienced listeners.

We usually encounter the Kuijken family playing on period instruments, as in their delectable Mozart Clarinet Quintet (Mozart: Quartet & Quintets - Kuijken String Quartet), but here they play on modern string instruments. It was decided that here it was the music that mattered more than the instruments themselves. They continue to play with many Classical performance practices, however. Vibrato is very discretely used, tone is pure and sweet, articulation is clear and tempi are generally on the fast side compared to more romanticised versions. Their innate familial communication is immediately evident in the natural and spontaneous give-and-take between parts, while joy of mutual discovery and the physicality of music-making results in polished yet truly characterful interpretations. More so than with many other quartets, the internal parts remain clear in the Kuiken's overall internal balancing, the warmth of the viola part easily discernable.

The final item on Challenge Classics' 2-disc set is Beethoven's inexplicably neglected String Quintet op.29 of 1801, a work of spirited grace and eloquence belonging to Beethoven's early period. Using a second viola (Beethoven loved the instrument as did Mozart), played by Marleen Thiers, Sigiswald's wife, the quintet appears as a real gem, given such a superbly affectionate and brilliant performance by the Kuijkens. Just listen to the glorious long-breathed Adagio molto espressivo, one of Beethoven's loveliest slow movements.

Summarising, these are questing, deeply considered and truly rewarding readings of the 'Razumovsky' quartets; unflinchingly registering Beethoven's stormy temper tantrums as well managing his frequent "stop and go" episodes, a feature of many of the quartet movements. They also revel in his touches of wit and humour, be they elegant or gruff. These are intimate interpretations, communicating directly with the listener, rather than the more public projections of the Cleveland Quartet's set, or the intense concentration of the Takács, with which they can favourably be compared.

Challenge Classics' presentation is impeccable as usual; the discs are in a slim double jewel disc and housed in a slip case with a booklet in English, German and French. Recording engineers from Northstar Recording services describe their mission statement as production of a holographically natural sound image, and this is certainly attained with their DSD equipment in the acoustically ideal and noiseless Mol Studios in Belgium. It is one of the most convincing quartet recordings to come my way. The cello image in particular is perfectly proportioned in this capture; in so many other quartet recordings it is portrayed more as a double bass, and at the other end of the spectrum there is no hint of glare on the high violin notes at fortissimo. The Mol acoustics give the 5.1 sound in particular plenty of bloom, with extra space to expand into. One small caveat; I found the pressing level to be unexpectedly high, and had to reduce the amp volume level somewhat to find the ideal balance.

If you are looking for a set of the Op. 59 Quartets with a delectable Quintet companion, played with classical poise and familial joy, this is it.

Copyright © 2011 John Miller and


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Review by Mark Novak - October 22, 2011

These quartets are played on modern instruments with a nod to historical performance practice in that vibrato is sometimes minimized in certain phrases. But don’t let that put you off - the “two generations” of the Kuijken family make terrific music together delivering dynamic, romantic performances that do justice to these monumental works (well, excepting the quintet which is a good work – just not monumental). Do the three Op.59 quartets portend what was to come in Beethoven’s late works in this genre? Not really, but taken on their own, they are marvels of the medium when considered as part of the historical milieu in which they were conceived. As performances, these compare favorably with the best of contemporary efforts that I’ve heard (which includes Vermeer, Emerson, Talich, Takacs, Fitzwilliam and Sine Nome). So many performances, so little time! My current favorite is the Takacs Quartet but the Kuijken Quartet is a very good alternative. For me, the Emerson Quartet is just too “perfect” – I miss some humanity in their readings.

As there are not many SACD options for these quartets as yet, the sound quality may be a determining factor for you. The recordings were made at the Galaxy studios in Belgium and were engineered by Northstar Recording Services of the Netherlands. For this release, it is a tale of two different recording sessions. The quintet and Op.59/3 were recorded in 2006 (and was originally released as a single disc several years ago). On that front, the (stereo) sound is very good – very detailed and clear with a natural tone for the strings as well as a nice and full bottom end for the cello. Perspective is fairly close but there is an overabundant resonance to the sound that, because of the closeness, detracts a bit from the realism. I have complained about this effect in several of the Haydn quartet recordings on the Praga label (also made in a studio) which makes me wonder if there was some amount of artificial reverb added discreetly to the sound. In places, I find that the viola is a bit buried in the mix but its not clear if that is the recording or the player.

On the other hand, the remaining Op.59 pieces were recorded in 2009 in the same venue and to my ears are a more successful recording. Here, the resonance is not excessive and one hears a more realistic overall sound from the quartet. The viola is not reticent and becomes a natural part of the string texture. These are really good recordings of a string quartet and it is a pity that the earlier-recorded pieces don’t possess this level of excellence. I would rate the sound of the latter recording at 4.5 stars and the earlier at 3.5 stars for an overall rating of 4 stars.

With these (minor) caveats for the sound of the Op.59/3 and quintet, these performances are very satisfying. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2011 Mark Novak and


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