Choosing 10 of the world’s best string quartets is no easy task, particularly when considering groups past and present. A definitive list could easily encompass tens, if not hundreds, of first-rate quartets active today, let alone the leading ensembles from previous generations.
Still, we’ve valiantly taken on the challenge of naming ten string quartets from the last 100 years that any self-respecting chamber music fan should know—groups revered for their sense of ensemble, nuance of interpretation, and sound character. If you’re looking for a place to begin your exploration of the wonderful world of string quartets, the following ten groups are a great place to start, listed below in historical order.
The best string quartet groups ever
Busch Quartet (1912–51)
Founded in 1912 as the Wiener Konzertvereins-Quartett before being rebranded as the Busch Quartet in 1919, this ensemble, perhaps more than any other in our list, was influenced by the distinctive sound of its leader, the German violinist Adolf Busch. Despite moving from the very leader-dominated sound of earlier ensembles headed by Joachim and Ysaÿe towards a more egalitarian style of playing, Busch’s intensity of tone and vibrato was an ever-present characteristic, as were his extremes of tempo in the group’s revered recordings of the late Beethoven quartets.
The ensemble went through several personnel changes during its many years of performing and was known particularly for its interpretations of classical and romantic repertoire.
Beethoven: Late String Quartets
EMI 509 6552
Borodin Quartet (1945–present)
Formed in 1945 by four Moscow Conservatory students (including cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who remained for only a brief spell), the Borodin Quartet continues performing to this day, though the players have changed several times throughout the years. The group is particularly associated with the music of Shostakovich, with whom it maintained a close relationship during the composer’s life.
Shostakovich personally supervised the study of each of his quartets, and the ensemble subsequently toured complete cycles of his works the world over. However, the quartet has also produced superb and, in many ways, definitive interpretations of the works of such other Russian composers as Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Schnittke. The players have recorded all the Beethoven and Shostakovich string quartets and are known for their richly blended tone and synchrony of phrasing.
Shostakovich: String Quartets 1–13
Chandos Historical CHAN10064H
Quartetto Italiano (1945–80)
1945 was a good year for string quartets, as it was also the year in which Quartetto Italiano was formed by a group of young players, including first violinist Paolo Borciani and cellist Franco Rossi. Known particularly for its interpretations of Italian and French music and for its complete recorded cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets (1967–75), the group also recorded the complete works of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, and Webern before disbanding in 1980. Its complete recordings for Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon were released in a 2015 37-disc set by Decca, featuring masterfully flexible, tonally beautiful, and musically perceptive playing.
Beethoven: Complete String Quartets
Philips 454 062-2 ADD
Amadeus Quartet (1947–87)
One of the few quartets on this list to have retained all four members throughout the entire life of the ensemble, the Amadeus performed for 40 years, from 1947 to 1987. Three of the four members were Jewish refugees to the UK following Hitler’s Anschluss of 1938, and they all met through the violin teacher Max Rostal.
Noted for their polished sophistication, warmth of tone, and unified sense of ensemble, the players 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 concentrated on classical and romantic repertoire but also performed works by 20th-century composers, including Benjamin Britten, who dedicated 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 professors of the Vienna Academy of Music. Characterized by unified phrasing and a flawless technique, the group lent its burnished Viennese string sound not only to the expected classical and romantic works but also to 20th-century repertoire by Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Bartók, Lutoslawski, and Berio.
The players gave annual concert cycles in Vienna, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Cologne, and Zurich, and during a near 40-year career, they recorded complete string quartet cycles by Brahms, Berg, and Beethoven (the latter of which has sold more than a million copies). The ensemble also trained 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 contemporary and multi-genre repertoire, the Kronos Quartet has been breaking barriers for almost 50 years since its formation in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, who remains in post today. The ensemble has recorded over 40 albums and premiered more than 900 works, created especially for the group.
The composers who have collaborated with the ensemble include John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Kaija Saariaho, while the members have experimented with multiple genres, including pop, folk, jazz, and tango.
Glass: String Quartets 2, 3, 4,
Takács Quartet (1975-present)
Formed by four students at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest, this multi-award-winning ensemble moved to the US in 1983 and, following several personnel changes, made successful recordings of the complete Bartók, Beethoven, Smetana, and Borodin quartets. Among its former members are violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy and violist Roger Tapping, while cellist András Fejér is the group’s sole original member.
The group is renowned for impeccable ensemble playing, attention to detail, and imaginative interpretations and maintains an active touring and performing schedule. Following a long association with Decca, it has recorded several albums more recently for the Hyperion label and has been resident at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1983.
Mendelssohn: String Quartets
Emerson Quartet (1976-2023)
With over 30 albums and nine Grammy Awards to its name, this American ensemble was formed by four students at the Juilliard School before undertaking its first professional tour in 1976. At the time, the group was unusual as one of the first ensembles to have its violinists alternate between the first and second chairs. Those violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, have remained in post throughout the quartet’s lifespan, while there have been changes to the viola and cello players, the most recent being cellist Paul Watkins, who replaced long-term member 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 the major works of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvořák for DG. A very consistent ensemble, the quartet is known for its effective balance of 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
Ébène Quartet (1999-present)
This French quartet was founded in 1999 at the Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory in France and gained worldwide attention upon winning the 2004 ARD International Competition. Its recording of Ravel, Fauré, and Debussy won multiple accolades, including BBC Music Magazine’s ‘Newcomer of the Year’ prize in 2009, and with the release of Fiction in 2010, a jazz-infused album of its own pop and soundtrack arrangements, the group’s place in the chamber ensemble pantheon was assured.
Three of the original members remain: violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure (who like the Emerson violinists switch between the first and second chairs) 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 group has a particularly refined and elegant style, which it has applied very successfully to multiple genres, from core classical to crossover.
Dutilleux: String Quartet ‘Ainsi la nuit’; R Merlin: Night Bridge; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Pavel Haas Quartet (2002-present)
In 2002, Czech violinist Veronika Jarůšková put together a quartet of young players from Prague, shortly thereafter recruiting her husband Peter Jarůšek as the ensemble’s cellist. Though Jarůšková and Jarůšek remain, the group’s second violin and viola posts have been held by several different players during the last 20 years.
Following victories at the Prague Spring Festival Competition and Premio Paolo Borciani in Reggio Emilia, plus studies with members of several of the ensembles featured in our list, including Quartetto Italiano, the Borodin Quartet, and the Amadeus Quartet, the quartet established itself with award-winning recordings of Janáček and its namesake Haas (who lost his life in Auschwitz during the Holocaust), Beethoven, Haydn, Dvořák, Prokofiev, Schubert, and Smetana. Stylistically powerful and richly sonorous, the group is known for its passionate and fearless performances.
Janácek: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); Haas: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3
Pavel Haas Quartet
Supraphon SU 3922-2
And one for the road…
Dover Quartet (2008-present)
Although there are a number of truly wonderful younger quartets performing today, we thought we’d highlight one of the best. The Dover Quartet came to 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 players including Emanuel Ax, Ray Chen, Edgar Meyer, Anthony McGill, and Peter Serkin, the players were recently appointed to the Curtis faculty as ensemble-in-residence.
Among their recordings are the complete quartets of Schumann and Beethoven. Along with incredibly tight ensemble playing, the group plays with a full and glowing sound, as can be heard in the above clip of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Voices of Defiance: Ulman, Shostakovich, and Laks
Cedille Records CDR90000173