Picking 10 of the best string quartets in the world is no easy task, especially considering bands past and present. A definitive list could easily encompass dozens, if not hundreds, of top-notch quartets active today, not to mention flagship sets from previous generations.
Yet we valiantly rose to the challenge of naming ten string Quartets of the last 100 years that any self-respecting chamber music lover should know – groups revered for their sense of togetherness, nuance of interpretation and sonic character. If you’re looking for a place to start your exploration of the wonderful world of string quartets, the following ten bands are a great place to start – listed below in historical order.
The best string quartet groups of all time
Busch Quartet (1912-51)
Founded in 1912 as the Wiener Konzertvereins-Quartett before being renamed the Busch Quartet in 1919, this ensemble, perhaps more than any other on our list, was influenced by the distinctive sound of its leader, German violinist Adolf Busch. Despite shifting from the heavily frontman-dominated sound of previous ensembles led by Joachim and Ysaÿe to a more egalitarian style of playing, the intensity of Busch’s tone and vibrato was a pervasive feature, as were his extremes of tempo in the recordings. revered group of the late Beethoven quartets. The ensemble went through several personnel changes over its many years of performing and was particularly known for its interpretations of classical and romantic repertoire.
Beethoven: Last String Quartets
NDE 509 6552
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Borodin Quartet (1945–present)
Formed in 1945 by four students from the Moscow Conservatory (including the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, which remained only a brief stint), the Borodin Quartet continues to perform to this day – although the musicians have changed several times over the years. The group is particularly associated with the music of Shostakovich, with whom he had a close relationship during the composer’s lifetime.
Shostakovich personally supervised the study of each of his quartets, and the ensemble subsequently performed complete cycles of his works around the world. However, the quartet also produced superb and in many ways definitive interpretations of the works of other Russian composers such as Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Schnittke. The musicians have recorded all of Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s string quartets and are known for their richly blended sound and synchronization of their phrasing.
Shostakovich: String Quartets 1-13
Chandos History CHAN10064H
Italian Quartet (1945-80)
[1945estunebonneannéepourlesquatuorsàcordescarc’estaussil’annéeoùleQuartettoItalianoestforméparungroupedejeunesmusiciensdontlepremierviolonPaoloBorcianietlevioloncellisteFrancoRossiConnunotammentpoursesinterprétationsdelamusiqueitalienneetfrançaiseetpoursoncyclecompletenregistrédesquatuorsàcordesdeBeethoven(1967-75)legroupeaégalementenregistrél’intégraledesœuvresde Mozart, Schumann, Brahms et Weber avant de se dissoudre en 1980. Ses enregistrements complets pour Decca, Philips et Deutsche Grammophon sont sortis dans un ensemble de 37 disques par Decca en 2015 avec un jeu magistralement flexible, tonalement beau et musicalement perspicace.
Beethoven : intégrale des quatuors à cordes
Philips 454 062-2 AJOUTER
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Quatuor Amadeus (1947-87)
One of the few quartets on this list to retain all four members throughout the life of the ensemble, the Amadeus played for 40 years from 1947 to 1987. Three of the four members were Jewish refugees in the UK United after Hitler’s Anschluss of 1938 and all met through violin teacher Max Rostal. Noted for their refined sophistication, warmth of tone and unified sense of the whole, the musicians have made around 200 recordings, including the complete quartets of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. Often performing with violist Cecil Aronowitz and cellist William Pleeth in string quintets and sextets, the group focused on classical and romantic repertoire, but also performed works by 20th-century composers, including benjamin britten, who dedicates his third quartet to the ensemble.
Mozart: The String Quartets
Alban Berg Quartet (1970-2008)
The Alban Berg Quartet gave its first performance in Vienna in 1971, formed by four young teachers from the Vienna Academy of Music. Characterized by unified phrasing and flawless technique, the group lent their polished Viennese string sound not only to expected classical and romantic works, but also to 20th-century repertoire by Berg, Schoenberg, Weber, bartok, Lutoslawski and Berio.
The musicians gave annual concert cycles in Vienna, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Cologne and Zurich and, over a career spanning nearly 40 years, recorded complete cycles of string quartets by Brahms, Berg and Beethoven. (the latter sold over a million copies). The ensemble also formed a new generation of string quartets, including the Amaryllis, Artemis, Belcea and Schumann ensembles.
Berg: Lyric Suite, String Quartet
Alban Berg Quartet
Warner Classics 9029592807
Kronos Quartet (1973–present)
Champion of the contemporary and multi-genre repertoire, the Kronos Quartet has been breaking down barriers for nearly 50 years since its formation in 1973 by violinist David Harrington – still in place today. The ensemble has recorded more than 40 albums and created more than 900 works, created especially for the group. Composers who have collaborated with the ensemble include John Adams, Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Kaija Saariaho, while the members experimented with multiple genres including pop, folk, Jazz and tango.
Glass: String Quartets 2,3,4,5
Takács Quartet (1975–present)
Formed by four students from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest, this multi-award-winning ensemble moved to the United States in 1983 and, after several personnel changes, successfully recorded the complete Bartók Quartets, Beethoven, Smetana and Borodin. Its former members include violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy and violist Roger Tapping, while cellist András Fejér is the band’s only original member. The band are renowned for their impeccable ensemble playing, attention to detail and imaginative interpretations, and maintain an active touring and performance schedule. After a long association with Decca, he has recorded several albums more recently for the Hyperion label, and has been a resident at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1983.
Mendelssohn: String Quartets
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Emerson Quartet (1976-2023)
With more than 30 albums and nine Grammy Awards to their credit, this American ensemble was formed by four students from Juilliard School before embarking on its first professional tour in 1976. At the time, the group was unusual as one of the first ensembles to alternate its violinists between first and second chairs. These violinists – Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer – remained in post throughout the life of the quartet, while there have been changes in the viola players and cellists, the most recent being cellist Paul Watkins replacing member longtime David Finckel in 2013.
Among the group’s recordings are the complete string quartets of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartók, Webern and Shostakovich, as well as multi-CD sets of major works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Dvorak for DG. A highly cohesive ensemble, the quartet is known for its effective balance between four individual temperaments, collective virtuosity and insightful interpretations. The group has announced that the 2022-23 season will be its last.
Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3
Emerson String Quartet
Pentatone PTC 5186 869
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Ebony Quartet (1999–present)
This French quartet was founded in 1999 at the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt in France and rose to international prominence by winning the 2004 ARD International Competition. Its recording of Ravel, Fauré and Debussy has won multiple accolades, including BBC Music Magazine‘s ‘Newcomer of the Year’ in 2009, and with the release of fiction in 2010, a jazz-infused album of its own pop arrangements and soundtracks, the band’s place in the chamber ensemble pantheon was assured. Three of the original members remain – violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure (who, like Emerson’s violinists, alternate between first and second chair) and cellist Raphaël Merlin – while original violist Mathieu Herzog left in 2015 to be replaced first by Adrien Boisseau and currently by Marie Chilemme. The band has a particularly polished and elegant style that they have applied with great success to multiple genres, from basic classical to crossover.
Dutilleux: String quartet “Thus the night”; R Merlin: Night Bridge; Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht
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Pavel Haas Quartet (2002–present)
In 2002, Czech violinist Veronika Jarůšková formed a quartet of young musicians from Prague, soon after recruiting her husband Peter Jarůšek as the ensemble’s cellist. Although Jarůšková and Jarůšek remain, the band’s second violin and viola positions have been filled by several different players over the past 20 years. After victories at the Prague Spring Festival Competition and the Premio Paolo Borciani in Reggio Emilia – as well as studies with members of several of the ensembles on our list, including the Quartetto Italiano, the Borodin Quartet and the Amadeus Quartet – the quartet has established itself with award-winning awards. recordings of Janacek and its namesake Haas (who lost his life in Auschwitz during the Holocaust), Beethoven, Haydn, Dvořák, Prokofiev, Schubert and Smetana. Stylistically powerful and richly sounding, the band are known for their passionate and fearless performances.
Janácek: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); Haas: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3
Pavel Haas Quartet
Supraphone SU 3922-2
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And one for the road…
Dover Quartet (2008–present)
While there are a number of truly wonderful young quartets performing today, we thought we’d highlight one of the best. The Dover Quartet captured worldwide attention after winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013. Formed at the Curtis Institute in 2008, they were mentored by Shmuel Ashkenasi of the Vermeer Quartet, and Arnold Steinhardt and Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet. Having collaborated with musicians such as Emanuel Ax, Ray Chen, Edgar Meyer, Anthony McGill and Peter Serkin, the musicians were recently appointed to the Curtis faculty as Ensemble-in-Residence. Among their recordings are the complete quartets of Schumann and Beethoven. With an incredibly tight set, the band performs with a full, bright sound, as can be heard in the clip above from Hairdresserit is Adagio for strings.
Voice of Challenge: Ulman, Shostakovich, Laks
Cedille Records CDR90000173