The more I listen to music, the more I regard the string quartet as the summit of classical music. Two violins, a viola and a cello, and the miracle happens: unity in diversity, a family whose members are very different, but who share the same features. A family where the smallest is the greatest, supported by the others.
A string quartet is like a whole orchestra, more intimate, but no less powerful. It is the opposite of stardom: even if the first violin often has a leading role, he is (almost) never “the” soloist, who takes center stage.
The string quartet is an art that does not abide mediocrity: accuracy, unity, listening and mutual attention are constantly required.
My musical tastes are rather decided: I like something or I do not like it, open-minded with regard to period or composer. Some musical styles annoy me or tire me out, the “galant” style, for instance of Lully, Rameau, etc. Others bore me, like a number of second-class Baroque musicians (musique “au kilomètre” - “music by the yard”), and I am closed to quite a few composers of the 20th century. But a string quartet seldom leaves me unmoved.
Even if the premiere string quartets are probably those of Boccherini, it is Joseph Haydn who gave this musical form its first reputation for excellence. After him, you have to lay out a large red carpet for the greatest: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Then there are Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, and even Tchaikovsky and Ravel, not to mention Dvořák, Janacek, Shostakovich and others.
I would gladly add to the list works which are not strictly string quartets, but which can be regarded as similar to them, as the sublime D 956 Quintet of Schubert, with a second cello, or Mendelssohn’s opus 20 Octet in which the instrumental configuration is doubled (four violins, two violas and two cellos). Then there are piano quintets as well, like the famous D 667 Quintet, “The Trout” of Schubert, etc.
The quartet ensembles are numerous. There are great “historical” quartets, like the Hungarian Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano, the Borodine, the Hagen or the Amadeus… and plenty of others. Among the more recent, my favourites are: the Alban Berg Quartet, the Emerson Quartet, the Jerusalem Quartet, the Pražák Quartet, the Quatuor Ébène…
If you want to listen to music, nothing is worth more than a good CD, with a good player (especially good loudspeakers). Yes, You Tube does give access to a very large number of works, but with very uneven sound quality. There, too, you need to listen with good loudspeakers or good headphones.
Here are some of my “first choice” You Tube links.
* Complete collection of the Beethoven quartets, by the Quartetto Italiano: nine hours of listening! An historical interpretation… perfect! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkUsrlDLch8
* The last five quartets (12 to 16, + Groβe Fugue) of Beethoven, by the Alban Berg Quartet. Masterful! Difficult works, sometimes austere, but brilliant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ocyCQ3CiGQ
* The last four quartets and the D 956 quintet of Schubert, played by various groups: Amadeus, Orlando, Hagen, Pražák and Julliard. The video image is not always perfect, and the sound recording varies from one piece to the next, but the set is worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUPGcI1y69E
As a musical conclusion, let me suggest to you a brilliant and delightful quartet, the opus 96 of Dvořák, known as the “American Quartet”, played by the excellent Czech group, the Pražák Quartet. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole piece, go to the 7th minute for the splendid second movement, “lento”.