By the time Ludwig van Beethoven appeared on the scene, the string quartet had become an established, refined genre, the only one whose expressive flexibility and tonal perfection could rival that of the human voice. Whereas in his orchestral and piano works Beethoven often fought against the limitations of the medium, his writing for string quartet is almost always idiomatic. He was drawn to the sound of the genre, and from the start he treated sound as a component of form, stretching out textures until they took on a value of their own. But the fact that Beethoven wrote idiomatically does not mean he was always graceful.
Beethoven composed the six quartets of Opus 18 before he reached his 30th year. Considering their place in history – following close on the heels of the supreme achievements of Haydn and Mozart – and their place in Beethoven's output, they are works of tremendous accomplishment.
The Razumovsky quartets were commissioned toward the end of 1805 and completed within a year. It is hard to imagine that their initial reception could have been so discouraging, yet the compositions provoked consternation and ridicule, even among Beethoven's musically literate friends. At least one perceptive critic reported of these works that "the conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended – with the possible exception of the third in C major, which cannot but appeal to intelligent lovers of music because of its originality, melody and harmonic power."
During his later years, Beethoven's need to pose new challenges to his creativity was as great as it had been at any point in his life. He felt obliged, as the musicologist Maynard Solomon has put it, "to test his powers against the restraints of the Classic model." What Beethoven found in the process was a new means to communicate feeling and thought. This communicativeness is at the heart of Beethoven's late works for string quartet.
The Emerson String Quartet has been together for more than 30 years, and the players are very serious musicians who put a lot of effort into this recording, Beethoven: The String Quartets, which ended up earning them a Grammy Award. They played these works for many years before sitting down to record them, and they approach the music with the intent of staying true to what Beethoven wanted and what he expected from the performers.
In his string quartets, as elsewhere, Beethoven was interested in difficulty. But the Emersons are so technically proficient that they can play the most demanding passages cleanly. These musicians perform at the highest level, and this seven-CD set highlights their brilliance and sheer ability.