The Best String Quartet Groups in the World
I offer this section more as a draft document than as a serious effort to actually identify the best of the world's string quartets. First, I don’t feel qualified to choose; I haven’t even heard all of the groups mentioned here. I drew the names from articles appearing in magazines like Gramophone, from books like The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, from CD ratings in various sources, and from the prizes given at international competitions. My goal in choosing quartets was to offer readers some very general advice as to quartets to prioritize when planning on attending concerts or buying records. In spite of considerable effort, I still don’t regard these ratings as anything more than a very rough first cut.
Some quartets may be very good, but rarely perform in the major music centers where reputations and recording contracts are determined. Some groups only play classic compositions while others specialize in contemporary music, and thus it’s hard to compare them. Some quartets may be really excellent when playing Adams, Glass, or some less well-known composer, but not so good when performing pieces by the classical composers. Some quartet may give an extraordinary performance on one special occasion and not do so well at other times. In a similar way, some quartets get raves when they perform a particular quartet live, but then generate a less-than-spectacular recording, for a variety of reasons not always under their control. Thus, this list is probably best used for planning to attend a concert and not so useful when planning to buy a specific recording.
It’s easier, of course, to be a little more objective about quartets that are now retired, and its much harder to evaluate younger quartets that may well continue to evolve over the course of the next two or three decades. In some cases, replacing a single player significantly improves or diminishes the reviews given to a quartet. Even evaluating established quartets can be tricky, however. Some established quartets have changed players several times over the years. Here, for example, is an overview of the players who have made up the Juilliard String Quartet. The dates indicate when a new member joined at a particular position.
First violin Second violin Viola Cello
1946 Robert Mann 1946 Robert Koff 1946 Raphael Hillyer 1946 Arthur Winograd
1997 Joel Smirnoff 1958 Isidore Cohen 1969 Samuel Rhodes 1955 Claus Adam
2009 Nick Eanet 1966 Earl Carlyss 2013 Roger Tapping 1974 Joel Krosnick
2011 Joseph Lin 1986 Joel Smirnoff 2016 Astrid Schween
1997 Ronald Copes
It’s hard, looking at all the changes that have occured in the Juilliard over the years, to even think of the Julliard as the same quartet. It's almost impossible to imagine that, whatever special sound quality it had in the beginning, it still has exactly that same sound quality today. Established quartets, like the Juilliard, have recorded several compositions multiple times, and connoisseurs may love a 1950 recording, but dismiss a 1970 recording as unworthy.
In summary, this list was developed from a variety of sources and it primarily focuses on the average performances by quartets that play in major music centers and record frequently. It undoubtedly omits some quartets that are just as good, and may not reference the quartet that has produced the single CD that connoisseurs think is the very best recording of a specific quartet. On the other hand, all the quartets on the list are very good and those that are currently active are almost always worth going to quite a bit of trouble to hear in live performance.
I’d be happy to get emails suggesting quartets that belong on this list that I have omitted (My email is email@example.com).
I’ve divided my list into four sections. First are a few early quartets that were popular before most Americans were even aware of the existance of string quartets. If the overall list is light anywhere it is undoubtedly here. There isn't enough written, and next to no recordings by the great European quartets of the Nineteenth Century. In addition, I focused on those that had the greatest impact in the US.
The second list describes quartets that were founded or popular in the years immediately after World War II. I think of the US members of this group as the first generation of US string quartets – although that designation can be a bit confusing since many post war US quartets included European refuges. Most of these groups recorded on vinyl discs and the sound quality of the records leave something to be desired. This says nothing about the quality of their performances, but simply says that its hard to hear them as they were at their best and compare them with quartets recorded on contemporary media.
Third, there are quartets that were formed and gained their reputations between 1960 and 1990 – what I think of as the second generation of US string quartets. In many cases these quartets have now retired, but those that haven’t are the most widely recognized "leading quartets" of our day. They tend to lead in sales of CDs.
Finally, there are the quartets that were formed after 1990. I think of the US-based quartets in this group as the third generation of US quartets. Many of these groups are just beginning their careers, so this list must be considered as very tentative.
The names of all quartets that are still active today are underlined.
Early Quartets (Founded or Active before 1945)
The Schuppanzigh String Quartet. Founded in 1795, the group was assembled by the violinist, Ignza Schuppanzigh, to serve as the house quartet of Prince Lichnowsky, the Chamberlain of the Imperial Austrian court and the patron of, among others, Mozart and Beethoven. I included this quartet to anchor our list. This is one of the first professional string quartets. They premiered most of Beethoven’s middle and late string quartets. Indeed, they made it possible for Beethoven to get his late quartets performed – since his late quartets were difficult for most of the pick-up quartets of that era to perform as the Master intended.
The Kneisel String Quartet. Founded in 1885 in Boston, this was the first professional string quartet founded in the United States. They traveled extensively and eventually ended up in New York City where they became the resident string quartet of the new music institute that would eventually become the Juilliard School of Music.
The Pro Arte String Quartet. Founded in 1912 in Brussels they toured extensively. They made their American debut in 1926, and returned frequently. When Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowed the US Library of Congress with a music hall, the Pro Arte was selected to inaugurate it. For several years the quartet had a summer residency at Mills College in Oakland. The quartet was visiting the US when World War II broke out and accepted a residency at the University of Wisconsin, where they have remained. The Pro Arte have made numerous recordings, starting with 78rph records for Victor. (Altogether 24 people have played as members of the Pro Arte quartet.)
The Budapest String Quartet. Founded in Budapest in 1917, this world famous quartet remained in existence until 1967. They migrated to the US during World War II and were summer residents at Mills College for several years. The quartet was founded by three Hungarians and a Dutchman and, in the end, consisted of four Russians. Their early recordings for Victor in the thirties help popularize string quartets in the US.
The Busch String Quartet. Founded in 1919, in Berlin by first violinist, Adolf Busch, this quartet was especially popular in the twenties for its performances and recordings of the late Beethoven quartets. Some still argue that the Busch recordings of the Beethoven quartets constitute the definitive performance of the cycle. The Busch toured widely. Unlike many early quartets, where the first violinist dominated the group, the Busch led the transition to a more modern, balanced emphasis. Once Hitler came to power in 1933 the group stopped playing in Germany and spent most of their time in Britain, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. In 1940, as the lights went out in Europe, the Busch immigrated to the US. They retired in 1951 after an emotional return tour of Germany.
The Post-War Quartets (Quartets founded between 1945 and 1959)
The Borodin String Quartet. Founded in 1945 in Moscow by students at the Moscow Conservatory. It has changed members several times, but all its members have always been students of the Moscow Conservatory. The quartet had a close relationship with Dmitri Shostakovich and in the immediate post-war years it did a lot to popularize Shostakovich’s string quartets in the West. The original quartet was famous for its almost symphonic volume and its extraordinary cohesion. The group is especially well-known for its performances of the Beethoven quartets.
Quartetto Italiano. Founded in 1945 in Siena, the group was especially known for its complete Beethoven cycle. The group traveled very extensively and Virgil Thomson said that they were “the finest string quartet, unquestionably, that our century has known.” Several of their recordings are very popular. Italy’s International String Quartet Competition is named after the groups first violinist, Premio Paolo Borciani. The quartet was disbanded in 1980.
The Juilliard String Quartet. Founded in 1946, after the Kneisel Quartet retired, this quartet became the second string quartet to be the resident quartet at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. The Juilliard has played a seminal role in establishing string quartet music is the US and it has mentored many of the best new string quartet groups. The group travels extensively and records frequently.
The LaSalle Quartet. Active from 1946 to 1987, this quartet was founded by Walter Levin and other young musicians who attended the Juilliard school. The founding members were mostly young Europeans, in the US to avoid World War II, and the quartet became the resident quartet at the University of Cincinnati. The quartet became famous for espousing the string quartets of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), and for promoting the work of composers like Zemlinsky, who the Nazi’s tried to relegate to oblivion. They are also famous as mentors to quartets like the Alban Berg, Artemis, Prazak, Ariel, and Volger quartets.
The Amadeus String Quartet. Formed in London in 1947, two of the members of the quartet were Jewish and had just been driven out of Vienna by the Nazi’s. The group’s first performance was at Wigmore Hall in London, sponsored by the British composer, Holst. The group became famous for its very smooth playing and its sensitive interpretations of the classic Vienna string quartets of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Britten wrote his 3rd quartet for the Amadeus. The group traveled extensively and was given many awards, including the Order of the British Empire. The quartet was disbanded in 1987 upon the death of the violist, Peter Schidlof.
Mid-Century Quartets (1960s to 1990s)
The Guarneri String Quartet. Founded in 1964 at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, the Guarneri was well-known for its bold and dramatic interpretations of Beethoven and Bartok. They taught at Binghamton, at the Uni. of Maryland, and were resident at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. They recorded extensively and Arnold Steinhardt, their lead violinist, added to their fame when he wrote about the group in a book entitled Indivisible by Four. The group disbanded in 2009.
The Lindsay String Quartet. Founded in 1965 in Sheffield, England, the Lindsays were hugely popular for many years, famous for their very smooth sound and their popular Haydn, Bartok and Late Beethoven performances and recordings. They retired in 2006.
The Tokyo String Quartet. Founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School in New York, the founding members had previously played together when they attended the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. Immediately after their formation, the group won First Prizes at the Coleman Competition and the Munich Competition. They then proceeded to launch a career centered in New York. They were the resident quartet at the Yale School of Music from 1976 until they disbanded at the end of the 2013 season. They recorded extensively and won seven Grammy Awards. Their complete Beethoven String Quartets album is particularly valued by many collectors.
The Alban Berg String Quartet. Founded in 1970 by four students at the Vienna Academy of Music, the quartet’s repertoire centered on the Viennese classics and on 20th Century music. The group spent a year in the US studying with the LaSalle Quartet in Cincinnati. The group maintained a residency for years with the Cologne Conservatory where they mentored several young, now established quartets. The quartet recorded extensively and, for a while, was considered by many to be the best string quartet in the world. In 2005 Thomas Kakuska, their violist died of cancer. The group replaced him, but by 2008 announced that they no longer wished to carry on and retired.
Kronos. Founded in 1973 in Seattle, the group moved to San Francisco in 1978. Unlike groups that include some modern music in an otherwise classical program, the Kronos string quartet plays and records mostly contemporary music and commissions a large percent of what they play. They travel extensively and play with other instrumentalists and are, perhaps, the most famous “new music” group in the world. They have been especially enthusiastic supporters of minimalist composers like John Adam, Arvo Part, Steve Reich, George Crumb, Henryk Gorecki, Philip Glass and Terry Riley and regularly premiere their new works for string quartet. They have recorded numerous albums and received countless awards.
The Emerson String Quartet. Founded in 1975 at the Juilliard School in New York, the quartet took its name from the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mentored by the Juilliard, the group won a First at the Avery Fisher Competition and has won nine Grammy Award. The quartet was initially the resident string quartet of the Music School at the University of Connecticut and is currently the resident quartet at the State Uni. of New York at Stony Brook. As of 2014, they had released more than 30 albums.
The Takacs String Quartet. Founded in 1975 at the Music Academy in Budapest, Hungary, the group later moved to Boulder, Colorado. The quartet won First at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France, the Gold Medal in 1979 at the London (Wigmore) International String Quartet Competition and at the Bordeaux Competition, and Firsts at the Budapest Int. String Quartet Competition and the Bratislava Competition in 1981. In 1983 they became the resident string quartet at the Uni. of Colorado at Boulder. The group received rave reviews for both its recordings of the six Bartok quartets in 1995 and it’s later recording of the complete Beethoven cycle. The group received a Grammy for their complete Beethoven album.
The Hagen String Quartet. Founded in 1981 in Salzburg, Austria by four members of the same family who had all studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. They were invited by Gidon Kremer to the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival in 1981 and proceeded to win both the Jury and Audience prizes. In 1982 the won First at the London String Quartet Competition. Since they have taken Firsts at Evian, Bordeaux and Banff. Their Mozart performances and recordings are especially valued.
The Alexander String Quartet. Founded in New York in 1981, they won the Concert Artists Guild competition in 1982, and went on to win the London (Wigmore) International String Quartet Competition in 1985, the first American quartet to do so. The Alexander moved to San Francisco in 1989 when they became the resident quartet of San Francisco State University. The Alexander tours and has recorded a number of string quartet cycles that have received great reviews.
Quatuor Ysaye. Founded in 1984 by students at the Paris Conservatorie, the Ysaye quartet is named after an earlier quartet by the same name that had been founded in 1886. The group undertook studies with members of the Amadeus Quartet in Cologne in 1986-89 and won Second prize at the London (Wigmore) competition and First at the Evian Int. String Quartet Competition. The quartet was particularly well known for its recordings of Debussy and Ravel and the quintets of Faure. The quartet was resident at CNR in Paris, traveled and recorded extensively and disbanded in 2014.
The Current Generation (Formed after 1990 and still active.)
Pacifica String Quartet. Founded in 1994 in Los Angeles, but now the resident quartet at Indiana University, the group has also been the resident quartet at the University of Chicago and at the University of Illinois School of Music (2003-2012) The group has won several prizes and was named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America in 2009. The group is well-known for its commitment to playing and recording complete quartet cycles, including those of Elliott Carter, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. As the Carter cycle suggests, the group is also committed to playing music of contemporary composers.
The Henschel String Quartet. Founded in 1994 by students at the Royal College of Music in London, this German group gives master classes at major universities throughout the world. Each year they sponsor a string music festival at Kloster Seligenstadt. In 1995 the Henschel won prizes at the international competitions at Evian, Banff, and Salzburg. In 1996 they won First at the Int. String Quartet competition in Osaka. In 2002 the quartet played their first complete Beethoven cycle in 6 evenings in Copenhagen. The quartet has several popular recordings and have premiered several modern composers.
Miro String Quartet. Founded at Oberlin College in 1995, the group is now the quartet-in-residence at the Uni. of Texas in Austin. The group has won the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition (1996), the 6th Banff Int. String Quartet Comp. (1998) and the Naumberg Chamber Music Award in 2000. In 2005 it was given the Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award and the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant. They travel extensively and are building up an impressive list of recordings, including Crumb’s Black Angels (Given a Diapason d’Or award in 2004), Mendelssohn and Schubert.
Paval Haas. Founded in Prague, Czech in 2002 and named after the Czech composer who died in Auschwitz in 1941, not to make a statement about World War II, as much as to emphasize the importance to Czech music of Haas’s three string quartets. The group won First at the Premio Paolo Borciani Int. String Quartet Competition in 2005. Their first CD in 2007 won the Gramophone Award for the best chamber music recording of the year. Their next two discs were each chosen as the editor’s choice recordings by Gramophone. Their recording of Dvorak quartets won the Gramophone Awards Recording of the Year in 2011. Their recording of Smetana Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 won it in 2015.
The Danish String Quartet. Founded in 2002 when the artists were initially teenagers, the quartet was originally called the Young Danish String Quartet. They won several contests in Denmark, Norway and Holland and in 2009 they took First in the 11th London Int. String Quartet Competition. They were awarded the Carl Nielsen Prize in 2011. There were selected for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program for the 2013-14 season. They travel extensively and have recorded a number of CDs that have received rave reviews.
The Escher String Quartet. Founded in 2005 at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. In their first year they were invited by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman to perform at their respective summer music festivals. Mentored by the Emerson, they were the resident quartet at Stony Brook Uni from 2007-2009. In 2013 the quartet was awarded the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant. They are currently resident artists at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They also tour quite a bit and have received lots of praise for their Zemlinsky cycle recording.
Here's a quick summary of my draft list of the best string quartets in the world. Once again, those underlined are still active and can be heard in live performances. Most of the rest can be heard on disk.
Early Quartets (Founded or Active before 1945)
The Schuppanzigh String Quartet
The Kneisel String Quartet
The Pro Arte String Quartet
The Budapest String Quartet
The Busch String Quartet
Post-War Quartets (Quartets founded between 1945 and 1959)
The Borodin String Quartet
The Juilliard String Quartet
The LaSalle Quartet
The Amadeus String Quartet
Mid-Century Quartets (1960s to 1990s)
The Guarneri String Quartet
The Lindsay String Quartet
The Tokyo String Quartet
The Alban Berg String Quartet
The Emerson String Quartet
The Takacs String Quartet
The Hagen String Quartet
The Alexander String Quartet
The Current Generation (Formed after 1990 and still active)
Pacifica String Quartet
The Henschel String Quartet
Miro String Quartet
The Danish String Quartet
The Escher String Quartet