Classical Chat: Four players, so many great string quartets

A string quartet performing
A string quartet performing
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Chamber music comes in a dazzling array of forms, but if there is one arrangement of instruments composers have returned to time and time again it is the string quartet.

Two violins, a viola and a cello: this simple-seeming set-up has spawned a vast library of incredible music since it was invented in the 1700s.

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It’s not difficult to see why it caught on. The string quartet has a perfect combination of balance and contrast in the sounds of the instruments and what they can do.

There is seemingly very little the quartet cannot evoke, from massive dramas to the quietest, most introspective feelings, from public display and grand subjects to incredibly personal and subjective writing.

Here are five great quartets from this mass of music:

Haydn’s Op 76 No 4: Haydn was the undoubted first master of the quartet. His Op 76 set of six are his most mature and involving and the fourth is a perfect place to start: an inspired sunrise opening leads into music of variety, beauty and formal balance.

Beethoven’s No 13: Beethoven’s late quartets represent the peak of the form as personal expression. The scale of this is breathtaking, ending in the savagely-difficult and astoundingly-modern Grosse Fuge lasting more than quarter of an hour.

Schubert’s No 14 (Death and the Maiden): This is the quartet as drama; dripping with menace, evoking one of the composer's own songs in which Death courts a young girl and ending in a fatal theatrical whirlwind.

Smetana’s No. 1 (From My Life): The Czech composer’s autobiographical piece starts with an ardent viola solo and moves through flowing music to despair at his deafness (represented heart-breakingly in the last movement).

Bartok’s No 4: Bartok had a unique way of writing for strings, showcased here with atmospheric night music, a movement made up of pizzicato plucking and a wild Hungarian folk-drenched finale.