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Best Classical Works - Part One: Best String Quartets

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Initial post: Dec 8, 2012, 9:05:44 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 8, 2012, 9:21:20 AM PST
WH says:
What are, for you, the 100 finest works of classical music? We have all seen critics take a stab at it (and here in the Amazon CM forum, "Wyote's Enshrinement Game" offers a fascinating list of 800+ works). I've tried to answer it for myself and found it difficult to think it through because of an "apples-and-oranges" problem. It's really hard to compare and rank (however arbitrarily) works across the centuries and works of such diverse genre. So I would like to suggest an exercise, a way of putting together such a listing of one's own favorite classical works, doing it in smaller steps, genre by genre. Over the next month, I plan to start the following threads.

Part 1: Best String Quartets
Part 2: Best Symphonies
Part 3: Best Concertos
Part 4: Best (Other) Orchestral Works (Ballets, Tone Poems, etc.)
Part 5: Best (Other) Chamber Works (e.g. Sonatas duos, Piano trios, Quintets, Small Ensembles, etc.)
Part 6: Best Solo Instrumental Works (Piano, Violin, etc.)
Part 7: Best Operas
Part 8: Best Sacred Works
Part 9: Best (Other) Vocal Works
Part 10: Best of the Rest

Let me suggest leading off with the string quartets partly because there have been a variety of threads recently discussing the string quartet. Over the last couple of weeks, I began assembling my list, but without having sufficient time to listen again to the complete cycles of favorites (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovich). So I put this out as a tentative 1st stab at it. I know that there are many gaps in my knowledge (e.g. only piecemeal familiarity with the vast corpus of Haydn, Mozart, and Dvorak). I post this in hopes that others will post their own and that I can learn from others who have a broader experience of the genre than I:

1. Beethoven: String Quartet #15 in A minor, op. 132 (1825)
2. Beethoven: String Quartet #14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131 (1826)
3. Ravel: String Quartet in F major (1903)
4. Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, op. 10 (1893)
5. Bartók: String Quartet #5, Sz 102 (1934)

6. Shostakovich: String Quartet #2 in A, op. 68 (1944)
7. Schubert: String Quartet #14 in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") (1824)
8. Dvorak: String Quartet #12 in F major ("American") (1893)
9. Bartók: String Quartet #4, Sz 91 (1928)
10. Rochberg: String Quartet #3 (1972)

11. Beethoven: String Quartet #7 in F major, op. 59/1 ("1st Razumovsky") (1806)
12. Shostakovich: String Quartet #8 in C minor, op. 110 (1960)
13. Beethoven: String Quartet #13 in B-flat, op. 130 with Grosse Fuge (op. 133)
14. Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, op. 76/2 ("Fifths")
15. Janacek: String Quartet #2 ("Intimate Letters") (1928)

16. Prokofiev: String Quartet #2, op 92 ("On Karbardian Themes") (1941)
17. Mozart: String Quartet #19 in C major ("Dissonance")
18. Fauré: String Quartet in E minor, op. 121 (1924)
19. Ligeti: String Quartet #1 ("Metamorphoses Nocturnes") (1954)
20. Brahms: String Quartet #1 in C minor, op. 51/1 (1865-73)

21. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 76, no. 3 ("Emperor")
22. Dvorak: String Quartet #13 in G major, op. 106 (1895)
23. Schumann: String Quartet #3 in A, op. 41/3 (1842)
24. Janacek: String Quartet #1 ("After Tolstoy's Kreutzer") (1923)
25. Martinu: String Quartet #1 (1918)

Posted on Dec 8, 2012, 10:05:48 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 8, 2012, 10:26:56 AM PST]

Posted on Dec 8, 2012, 10:08:39 AM PST
WH says:
Ken, Thanks. I have that bookmarked, and it's something I refer to regularly. What about your own list of favorite string quartets? You've got vast familiarity with this.

Posted on Dec 8, 2012, 10:27:25 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 8, 2012, 11:59:00 AM PST
That's a great list, W.H., except for one glaring omission IMO--Schubert's final String Quartet No. 15, arguably one of his most profound utterances: Schubert: The Last Three Quartets. As for myself, I would have put all of Mozart's 10 'Great' String Quartets on the list--the 6 'Haydn' quartets, the 3 Prussians, & the Hoffmeister, and more of Haydn. I also especially like Shostakovich's 4th String Quartet.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 8, 2012, 11:55:22 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 8, 2012, 11:56:08 AM PST
Ahmad says:
I don't have a broader experience in this genre, but one of my very favorite quartets are:
- Mozart's 421
- Haydn's Op.33, No1
- Chausson's only string quartet (incomplete)
- Mendelssohn's string quartet (the one he wrote right after the death of his sister, I forgot its number)

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 8, 2012, 2:27:12 PM PST
MacDoom says:

The Mendelssohn is a miracle. The searing emotion and heart on sleeve that nobody associates with Mendelssohn, yet there it is. One of my top favourites, too. (f minor, op. 80 - the numbers don't count (hah) for much with M).

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 8, 2012, 8:47:10 PM PST

I couldn't agree with you more - D887 is one of my favorite works, of any genre. I'd probably place it in second place, after LvB Op. 132.


Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 5:23:04 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Nov 26, 2013, 10:11:51 AM PST]

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 6:41:38 AM PST
Lez Lee says:
I agree with about 75% of those mentioned and would add a few of my favourites :

Virgil Thomson - String Qt. No. 2
Philip Glass - No.3 'Mishima'
Peter Sculthorpe - No.13 'Island Dreaming'

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 8:49:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 9, 2012, 9:09:02 AM PST
WH says:
Thanks, all. As I mentioned in the opening post, I have only piecemeal familiarity with the SQ of certain composers. I should have added to that listing Schubert as another of those composers. I appreciate the heads up on Schubert's Quartet #15 (D. 887). I look forward to exploring other suggestions (e.g. M.R.S.'s suggestions about Mozart's 'Haydn' and 'Prussians' and other greats, Lez's listing, Mac's and Ahmad's suggestion about the Mendelssohn).

March and M.R.S., thanks for your respective lists. March, not sure why Martinu's 1st has so caught my ear. I just picked up the complete quartets this fall and so they are still relatively new to me. Also, for whatever reason, Shostakovich #2 is simply a personal favorite even though I know his 15 reasonably well (#3 and #4 are wonderful and would make my 2nd 25).

I probably should have been clearer in my opening post. I was hoping a lot more would post their own PERSONAL rankings, their own top 10 or 15 or 25. In "games" around here, we sort out a sort of collective ranking. I'm more interested at this point in people's personal lists. I know such exercises have a certain arbitrary character, but I find personal lists more helpful than the "games"--which do sometimes help alert me to works that I've overlooked or even never heard of. Over the years, critics' lists have alerted me to a number of excellent works. But I figured that people around here have very astute and wide-ranging taste and could help me (and others) to see essential works overlooked.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2012, 8:55:39 AM PST
Ahmad says:
Get the Naxos Mendelssohn Mendelssohn: String Quartet Vol.1. I bought the Complete Mendelssohn Quartets by the Emersons, but they did not do it for me.

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 9:26:42 AM PST
Complete String Quartets
has held me in good stead. Haven't really thought of getting another cycle.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2012, 9:42:04 AM PST
MacDoom says:
Except that it isn't complete, like so many sets out there. It's missing the E-flat Major one of 1823 (without opus number). Which rules it out.

The Leipzigers have done them all, but as far as I know so far not as a boxed set, only individually. Predictably wonderful playing. The fourth CD has the 1823 quartet, and the Octet op 20 as a considerable bonus.

The Bartholdy Quartett have also released a set (looooong ago) which was really complete. The recordings weren't anything special (rather a lot of noise as I recall) though the playing was sympathetic.

On DG, the Melos Quartett did the full set as well. Their op. 80 however was marred by an unbelievable whopper of an intonation mistake (very near the beginning of the first movement) by the first violinist which should never have been allowed to go through. A pity, as I rather like the Melos generally, and the rest was quite good.

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 10:40:27 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 27, 2012, 10:44:42 AM PST]

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 10:49:14 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 9, 2012, 10:52:39 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2012, 11:30:59 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 9, 2012, 11:32:20 AM PST
MacDoom says:

The way you read it, I can imagine it sounded over the top. I meant it a bit differently: the set is advertised as 'complete string quartets' and it patently isn't. As a set of Mendelssohn string quartets it's fine (I liked the interpretations of the Ysaÿe Quartet; I had them because I got them as replacements for the Bartholdy, and I only later, after discarding the Bartholdys, found that I was now a quartet down thanks to misleading advertising). That is why it's ruled out as a *complete* set.

Beethoven is a different matter. It's not really a string quartet in its own right; it's a transcription of sonata op 14/1. And a transcription not being included in a complete set of string quartets is defensible (though I still prefer to have it).

And I wouldn't mind going without the op. 81 pieces nearly as much as missing the really good quartet!

But, as always, each to his/her own. I think it's important for people to make an informed choice instead of assuming something is complete that claims to be complete and then finding it isn't.

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 12:31:39 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 27, 2012, 10:44:47 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2012, 1:54:51 PM PST
MacDoom says:
Ah. Yes. That is more difficult. They are sonatas, so if I'm to be consistent, I should insist on their being there. And yet... I don't. Sorry - I'm now officially fickle.

Thanks for showing me up! :-)

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 2:37:02 PM PST
Dichterliebe says:
My top 30? Today:

1. Schubert -- D 810 "Death and the Maiden"
2. Beethoven -- op. 74 "Harp"
3. Haydn -- op. 54 no. 2
4. Beethoven -- op. 127
5. Ravel

6. Haydn -- op. 50 no. 4
7. Beethoven -- op. 132
8. Beethoven -- op. 59 no. 3
9. Bartok -- no. 2
10. Haydn -- op. 20 no. 4

11. Mozart -- K. 465 "Dissonant"
12. Schubert -- D. 887
13. Beethoven -- op. 59 no. 1
14. Mendelssohn -- op. 80
15. Haydn -- op. 76 no. 6

16. Mozart -- K. 464 "The Drum"
17. Haydn -- op. 54 no. 1
18. Bartok -- no. 6
19. Beethoven -- op. 18 no. 1
20. Beethoven -- op. 131

21. Schumann -- op. 41 no. 3
22. Haydn -- op. 20 no. 2
23. Haydn -- op. 76 no. 3 "Emperor"
24. Beethoven -- op. 18 no. 6
25. Brahms -- op. 51 no. 2

26. Haydn -- op. 50 no. 6 "Frog"
27. Beethoven -- op. 59 no. 2
28. Beethoven -- op. 18 no. 2
29. Debussy
30. Sibelius -- op. 56

Some personal favorites by composers that did not make the cut (this doesn't imply that these compositions are the next in order of quality but that these are fine quartet composers who deserve mention):

Cherubini -- Quartets 1 - 6
Grieg -- op. 27
Johnston -- no. 4 "Amazing Grace"
Borodin -- no. 2
Smetena -- no. 1
Boccherini -- op. 48 no. 2
Shostakovich -- nos. 2 and 8
Kodaly -- no. 2
Zemlinsky -- no. 4

...and many others.

Posted on Dec 9, 2012, 5:35:42 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 9, 2012, 9:35:02 PM PST
WH says:
Dichterliebe: Great list. Your list is a good reminder for me to go and explore Haydn op. 50 and 54--sets of his works which I don't just know. And with all the discussion of Mendelssohn, I need to explore his SQ--once again, a facet of his work I don't know. I noticed that where I have Bartok's 5th high up, you have his 2nd. The 2nd is one that I returned to recently and realized that it should probably be in my top 25 as well. Thanks for the list.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 10, 2012, 6:36:58 AM PST
"I probably should have been clearer in my opening post. I was hoping a lot more would post their own PERSONAL rankings, their own top 10 or 15 or 25."

My problem is that I find this virtually impossible. I have a bunch at the very top - Schubert's D814 and D887, Beethoven's op. 18/4 and 18/6, the three op. 59, op. 131 and op. 132, but I can't bring myself to rank them any more than I can rank my children. And trying to rank further down - Haydn vs. Mozart vs. Bartok vs. Mendelssohn vs. Shostakovich etc. - is an exercise in futility for me.


In reply to an earlier post on Dec 10, 2012, 6:42:15 AM PST
March -

What's your objection to the Pacifica set? I rather like it, as much as the Henschel, Melos, and Cherubini sets. I haven't listened to it in a long time, but I remember liking the Artis Quartet set as much as any: Oeuvre Integrale Pour Quatuor a Cordes.

Anyone who's into HIP quartet recordings should check out the three separate discs by the Eroica Quartet:

Mendelssohn String Quartets
Mendelssohn String Quartets Volume 2 (Quartet No. 3 in D Major and Quartet No. 4 in E minor) Op 44 No. 1 & No. 2
Mendelssohn: String Quartets, Vol. 3


Posted on Dec 10, 2012, 6:57:34 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Nov 26, 2013, 10:11:52 AM PST]

Posted on Dec 10, 2012, 8:15:05 AM PST
Dichterliebe says:

You're very welcome and I appreciate your list and your comments. I think I should state clearly that when I wrote "Today:", I meant to imply that my list is not to be taken as a definite ranking that was weighed and measured carefully reflecting years of such thinking; I listed favorite quartets that came to mind at the time, only making a few allowances for qualities I appreciate and then placing them in rough accord with such estimation. (Sorry for any inaccuracies -- I wrote from memory.) You undoubtedly understand that but I wanted to make that clear to others. Also, I hate leaving out personal favorites and guilty pleasures (Dvorak's Cypresses, Puccini's Chrysanthemums, Wolf's Italian Serenade, the Verdi, Franck, etc.). To heck with guilt -- it's all good.

To my mind, Haydn is the greatest quartet composer of all time. No other composer comes close to expressing so much richness, diversity, experimentation, wit, depth, concentration, and any and all other aspects of composition in this, the greatest chamber genre. The sets of 50 and 54/55 are twelve of his greatest: 50 came after he heard Mozart's 'Haydn' set and there are subtle influences such as a certain smoothness, local chromaticism, and longer transitional material; 54/55 are experimental, full of surprising, even radical details. Both sets appear to have been written with larger halls and audiences in mind as they stretch the definition of quartet texture further than ever before. The writing is also more virtuosic, as the first violinists he had in mind were extremely fine players.

Mendelssohn's quartets are, for myself, a frustration. He found composition so easy that the density, the struggle, and even the antagonism that are associated with great quartet writing (particularly in Beethoven) make Mendelssohn's quartets facile and glib by comparison. Lots of running sixteenths, repeated cadences, tried-and-true modulations, strict adherence to classic forms to the point of sheer formulae, a penchant for impersonal charm...truly beautiful ideas are made unmemorable by the sheer weight of manners like windows in a structure of Wren. 12 and 13 are exceptionally impressive in their absorption of Beethoven at his most experimental and personal and I would never doubt Mendelssohn's ability to understand the technical challenges of the form itself but the derivation in both and the cyclic treatment in 12 especially is just a tad obvious. (Additionally, I don't consider the age of a composer as a qualification of its overall quality, astonishing as these two works are.) 13 is crowned with a quotation ('Frage'), meant in respect to Beethoven ("Musst es sein?" vs. "Ist es wahr?") and the musical question is handled beautifully, particularly in the invocation of op. 132 but it's not entirely convincing; again, the facility and art(ifice) are overbearing. Only in 80 does the marble crack and for once, decorum is sacrificed on the altar of biography, all for the better. It's angry and despairing music made more so in the context of his other works; perhaps my estimation of it has something to do with my love for Schumann's understanding that musical ideas generate the resultant form, the method of Haydn and Beethoven. Anyway, that's my take on Mendelssohn's quartets in a nutshell. (I don't know the very early quartet but I assume it's like everything he wrote as a child: weirdly competent and worth a listen.)

I am gratified that you included Schumann's no. 3. Good hearts love Schumann.

Posted on Dec 10, 2012, 9:22:26 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Nov 26, 2013, 10:11:52 AM PST]
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