home | site map | about us | contact us
Getting Started
Top 10 CDs
Top 20 CDs
Top 10 by Composer
Top 10 by Era
Top 10 by Genre
Top 10 Books
CD Buying Guide

Top 10 String Quartets to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

The string quartet is to chamber music what the symphony is to the orchestra: the most popular and prestigious form. A string quartet is written for two violins, a viola, and a cello, and typically has four movements. The first movement is usually fast and contains two or three themes that are repeated and developed throughout the movement. The second movement is usually slow and lyrical, while the third movement is in a dance style such as waltz, minuet, or scherzo. The finale may take on any of a number of forms, including theme and variations, rondo (one repeated theme and a number of unrelated themes), or the same form as the first movement.

The string quartet developed in Germany and Austria in the years 1750-80 from the divertimento, chamber music that could feature any number of players and was intended as a light diversion or background music. Gradually the number of players was standardized at four and the music took on a more serious character. Haydn wrote 83 quartets and is known as the "father of the string quartet," while Beethoven's sixteen greatly widened the expressive range of the four instruments. In the nineteenth century the quartet was regarded as the supreme form of chamber music, and all of the great composers (including Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky) wrote several. Beginning with Beethoven, composers wrote string quartets to give expression to their most intimate personal feelings. This trend continued through the twentieth century in the powerful quartets of Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, and others.

Back to Genres Index

1 Beethoven: "Razumovsky" String Quartets -- Takács String Quartet
Revolutionary chamber works. Review...

2 Schubert: "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet -- Amadeus String Quartet
A dying man's outpouring of grief. Review...

3 Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 -- Borodin String Quartet
A haunting musical autobiography. Review...

4 Mozart: "Haydn" String Quartets -- Alban Berg Quartet
Viennese one-upmanship? Review...

5 Debussy, Ravel: String Quartets -- Belcea String Quartet
Ethereal harmony. Review...

6 Haydn: String Quartets Op. 76 -- Lindsay String Quartet
Late masterpieces from the "Father of the string quartet." Review...

7 Beethoven: Late String Quartets -- Takács String Quartet
Quartets that break all the rules. Review...

8 Brahms: String Quartets Nos. 1-2 -- Alban Berg Quartet
"Progressive" works in the tradition of Beethoven. Review...
9 Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 1 -- Emerson String Quartet
The captivating Andante cantabile -- and a whole lot more. Review...

10 Janácek: String Quartets -- Lindsay String Quartet
Chamber music with a Czech flavor. Review...

11 Glass: String Quartets -- Kronos Quartet
A compelling introduction to Minimalism. Review...

12 Schubert: String Quartet No. 15 -- Italian Quartet
Schubert's last quartet, brimming with intensity. Review...
13 Schumann: String Quartets -- Eroica String Quartet
Establishing chamber music mastery. Review...


Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 59, Nos. 1-3, "Razumovsky"
Takács String Quartet

If Beethoven's symphonies revolutionized the realm of orchestral music, his string quartets did no less to change the nature of chamber music. The string quartets of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's immediate predecessors, grew out of tradition of the divertimento, music intended for diversion or amusement and often played in the background. On the other hand, these three quartets, from Beethoven's so-called "middle period," are very serious affairs that command the listener's full attention. They have often been said to be symphonies in miniature, for Beethoven is able to coax as much emotion and sonority from four players as he is from a full orchestra. This recording demonstrates why Takács Quartet have emerged as today's leading interpreters of the Beethoven quartets. The playing is profound and technically impeccable, and the Takács make these quartets still sound fresh even after dozens of listenings.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"
Amadeus String Quartet

In the last few years before he died of syphilis at the age of 31, Franz Schubert experienced one of the most prolific periods of creative genius humankind has ever seen. This quartet is one of the fruits of that period. In the first movement, Schubert develops a simple descending-scale motif into an intense outpouring of grief. The quartet takes its name from the theme of the second movement, a song which Schubert wrote when he was twenty. In its quartet incarnation, Schubert takes the simple melody through a whole range of moods, building to an impassioned frenzy and then relaxing. The Amadeus Quartet offer a convincing performance at a reasonable price.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
Borodin String Quartet

Dmitri Shostakovich's eighth string quartet is an intimate and haunting musical autobiography of a composer who was forever struggling to remain in the good graces of the Soviet regime. The quartet is structured around a four-note motif which spells out the composer's initials, D-S-C-H (these are the German names of the notes D, E-flat, C, and B). The beginning listener may not recognize the numerous quotations from Shostakovich's previous works, but he or she cannot fail to be impressed by the haunting and tragic nature of this work. The Borodin String Quartet have always been the premier interpreters of Shostakovich's chamber music, and this super-bargain two-disc set features the eighth along with four other quartets spanning a period of 25 years of the composer's life.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartets Nos. 14-19, "Haydn" Quartets
Alban Berg Quartet

In 1782 Franz Joseph Haydn published his set of six string quartets, Op. 33, and they quickly became the rage of Vienna. At this time Haydn's mastery of the quartet genre was widely acknowledged, and Mozart set out to write a set of quartets emulating the style of the master. After a "long and laborious endeavor," Mozart completed this set of six string quartets in 1785 and dedicated them to Haydn. Together with Haydn's quartets of the period, they form the pinnacle of the Viennese quartet style. The Alban Berg Quartet's unsurpassed recording includes these six as well as Mozart's four last quartets.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G major; Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major
Belcea String Quartet

While Arnold Schoenberg and his followers in Germany were getting all the attention for breaking the conventional rules of composition, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France were quietly experimenting with their own revolutionary style, which has since come to be called Impressionism. The hallmark of Impressionism is new combinations of sounds that exist purely for their own sake, and don't need to lead to or follow from any other sounds. These two quartets exemplify the style; Debussy's quartet makes the listener feel she is floating on air, and Ravel's, while remaining firmly on the ground, takes some surprising turns. The Belcea Quartet give exquisite -- and very French -- performances of these two masterpieces, and at super-bargain price this is a recording not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 76 (Nos. 1-3, Nos. 4-6)
Lindsay String Quartet

These quartets represent the pinnacle of Haydn's chamber writing, and demonstrate why Haydn deserves to be the "Father of the String Quartet" just as much as he is "Father of the Symphony." One of the most exciting is the second quartet, nicknamed "Fifths" from the musical interval that makes up the first movement's theme. The slow movement of the third quartet is a set of variations on the song "God Save Emperor Franz," which has since become the Austrian national anthem and also gives the quartet its nickname, "Emperor." The fourth quartet is nicknamed "Sunrise" after its introduction, which features a rising violin line. Though it has no nickname, the sixth is perhaps most inventive of them all, with a "Fantasia" slow movement that contains numerous harmonic surprises. The Lindsay Quartet are today's foremost Haydn interpreters, and their performances of these quartets demonstrate why this is so.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets, Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135
Takács String Quartet

Beethoven's last five quartets were among the last works he completed before his death, and all are masterpieces containing some of Beethoven's most powerful music. The music is very dense and personal, and Beethoven breaks free of nearly all contemporary conventions of harmony and form. The influence of the contrapuntal style of Bach is noticeable throughout these works, especially in the opening movement of Op. 131 and in the "Grosse Fuge" finale to Op. 130 (which was deemed so difficult that it had to be published separately as Op. 133). The Takács Quartet give deeply moving performances of these masterpieces; for a less expensive alternative, it's hard to go wrong with the Emerson Quartet, who display tremendous virtuosity if not quite the same depth of feeling.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Johannes Brahms: String Quartets No. 1 in C minor, No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51
Alban Berg Quartet

Just as Brahms's first symphony was dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth," these two works continue the tradition of Beethoven's string quartets. The First Quartet is in the same key and style as Brahms's first symphony, and its four movements are linked thematically to give the piece a "breathless unity." In his famous article "Brahms the Progressive," Arnold Schoenberg showed how the Second Quartet's slow movement is generated from a motif consisting of just two notes, making it a miracle of musical compactness. The Alban Berg Quartet prove their reputation as admirable Brahms interpreters in this two-disc set that also contains Brahms's Third Quartet and a quartet by Antonin Dvorák.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
Emerson String Quartet

Tchaikovsky wrote his first string quartet while he was still a student, and it was not published until 1940. The lyrical second movement is particularly appealing, and today it is often played in concert as the Andante cantabile for Cello and Strings. The other movements are equally appealing; the scherzo blazes with intensity, and the finale brings the work to a rousing conclusion. This fine performance comes paired with another Russian favorite, the Borodin Second Quartet, as well as Dvorák's popular "American" quartet.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky, Top 10 Romantic
Leos Janácek: String Quartets No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"; No. 2, "Intimate Letters"
Lindsay String Quartet

Leos Janacek, the greatest Czech composer after Dvorák, made a point of including Czech influences in his works; his mature style grew out of the rhythms and inflections of Moravian peasant speech and song. He enjoyed his greatest burst of creativity near the age of seventy, after he had fallen in love with a woman half his age, and these two chamber masterpieces are from that era. Until Supraphon reissues the Janácek Quartet's famous recording, the Lindsay Quartet comes the closest to capturing the true Czech flavor of these two works.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Philip Glass: String Quartets Nos. 2-5
Kronos Quartet

Philip Glass is one of the most successful composers in the school of Minimalism, and one of the most popular living composers today. Brought up with a traditional musical training at Juilliard and in Paris, Glass withdrew all of his works and turned to Minimalism after working with the Indian musician Ravi Shankar. His works feature a simple, pleasing harmonic language that develops gradually throughout the piece. These four string quartets are perfect examples of Glass's style and make an ideal introduction to Minimalist music. The Kronos Quartet are today's leading performers of contemporary chamber music, and they give these quartets a splendid reading.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887
Quartetto Italiano

Though he only has four instruments to work with instead of a whole orchestra, Schubert's last quartet is just as long and intense as his last symphony. The crescendo at the beginning is a microcosm of the piece as a whole; the intensity builds throughout the piece and comes to a climax after nearly fifty minutes of music. The Quartetto Italiano's classic recording comes with splendid performances of Schubert's other three late quartets, including the great unfinished "Quartettsatz."

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic

Robert Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, Op. 41
Eroica String Quartet

All of Robert Schumann's publications up to 1840 were for solo piano, and he was in danger of being labeled a "miniaturist" not up to the tasks of composing a symphony or string quartet. That changed in 1842, which has come to be known as Schumann's "chamber music year": in addition to these three string quartets, he also composed his Piano Quartet and the famous Piano Quintet, all of which established Schumann as one of the all-time greats of chamber music. The quartets take after the style of Beethoven, with some characteristics particular to Schumann. Schumann's tendency to "struggle against the bar line" -- that is, to place the emphasis in his phrases in unexpected places -- is most apparent in the third quartet, while the second quartet's slow movement evokes the feeling of Beethoven's Op. 127. The young Eroica Quartet have established themselves as one of today's premier interpreters of Romantic string quartets with this award-winning recording.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic