A lot has been said and written about the sublime nature of Beethoven's late string quartets, but it seems that some people interested in listening to them might not know how to begin to appreciate or even understand the qualities that make them great. Some people might find it intimidating when someone like Cornel West casually tosses his love for Beethoven's late string quartets into his discussions about philosophy. "Understanding" a logical argument is very different from "understanding" a piece of music, because music strives to organize emotion and emotional experience in time. It would be interesting to hear a discussion about Beethoven between Cornel West and someone like Maynard Solomon. West might end up appearing to those "in the know" like the way Leonard Bernstein appeared when he attempted to talk about linguistics.
For string players the Beethoven String Quartets are like what the Pentateuch is to theologians: a constant source of study and wonder. Each one is like a complicated person who becomes an intimate friend. We all know that the more you try to understand the people closest to you, the more of a mystery they become. When you throw love into the mix, it is nearly impossible to really "know" somebody. By the same reasoning, it is nearly impossible to "know" any of the Beethoven Quartets, but it is sure compelling to keep trying. My purpose here is not to provide analysis and insight. It is simply to make an introduction and suggest a listening order. It is similar to the order that I use to introduce his quartets to my students, and it is extremely personal.
The best way to "understand" Beethoven's later quartets is by becoming familiar with his earlier quartets. One thing to bear in mind is that the six quartets of Opus 18, Beethoven's first set of quartets, are not "less mature" Beethoven. They do use many of the 18th-century conventions used by Mozart and Haydn, and the Opus 18 Quartets do show Mozart's and Haydn's influence, but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, imitations. Not being able to "better" either Mozart or Haydn, Beethoven re-invented the string quartet with his Opus 18. He began his string-quartet-composing life at the age of 30, and he ended it at the age of 56 with his final Quartet, Opus 135, six months before he died.
The six Opus 18 Quartets are all in four movements. They were written at the turn of the century (18th to 19th), and each one lasts about 25 minutes (following the conventions of the time). The fourth Quartet of the opus (not following the conventions of the time) has two movements in ternary form, a Scherzo and a Minuet, and the third Quartet doesn't have a movement in ternary form at all.
I would begin listening with Opus 18, but I would start with #4, the very intense Quartet in C minor. Next I would listen to Opus 18 #1 in F major, leaving the rest of the opus for later listening. I would next suggest listening to the third of the Opus 59 Quartets, but I would first listen to the Mozart Quartet K 465 (the "Dissonance Quartet"), the last of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. Beethoven's Opus 59 #3 is an out-and-out tribute to the Mozart. Listen to the introduction of the Mozart, then listen to the introduction of the Beethoven. You may not know how to put it into words, or how to analyze it, but you will understand the relationship immediately.
The other two Opus 59 Quartets are a bit longer than the Opus 18 Quartets, and they incorporate some very exciting Russian folk material. I would listen to #2 before listening to #1, but that's just personal (it's the order in which I first learned them). Go on to Opus 74, the "Harp" Quartet, and notice how, like two of the Opus 59 Quartets, the line between the third and fourth movements blurs. The tempo changes, but there is no pause between movements. Go back and listen to the rest of the Opus 18 Quartets. You will notice a distinct difference in style from the Opus 59 Quartets and the Opus 74, but you will not notice a change in quality: all of Beethoven's string quartets are masterpieces.
Now it's time for Opus 95, the "Serioso" Quartet. Written in 1810, and clocking in at 20 minutes, it is the shortest of the quartets. It is also one of the most intense, because there is just so much packed into those 20 minutes. There is also a bit of shape shifting going on here, with a sudden connection between the second and third movements, several abrupt changes in key, and a final movement that seems to have several different personalities. We have now arrived in the world of late Beethoven.
At this point, I would advise people new to this to start from the "back of the book." Opus 135 is only 26 minutes long, it's in the key of F major, and, aside from the final movement (called "Der schwer gefasste Entschluss"), it follows the shape of the quartets in Opus 18. I would advise listening to it with the score. Even if you don't read music, you will appreciate having it for the last movement. Go back and listen to Opus 18 #1 (here's the score), and then listen to Opus 95 again.
Beethoven wrote the Opus 127 Quartet in 1824, after taking a 14-year hiatus from string quartet writing. This piece sounds like the polar opposite of the Opus 95 "Serioso" Quartet, the last string quartet he wrote before his hiatus (during which he wrote his later Piano Sonatas and his 9th Symphony). Opus 127 is as expansive as the Opus 95 is contracted, and for me it marks Beethoven's leap from the more concrete to the more abstract in quartet writing.
Now it's time for Opus 132 in A minor. It takes 42 minutes or so, and there are a lot of tempo changes, key changes, and even more changes of mood. Allow yourself to hold onto the the reigns of the movement segments that seem to follow the laws of gravity, and allow yourself to be suspended when the music suspends you. The logic behind the structure of this one is all Beethoven's. You can't second guess him (even if you are playing). Sometimes when listening to this piece you can't even remember where you have been.
Opus 131, in C-sharp minor, is a deeply serious work. Unlike anything we have heard in this particular order, it begins with a really long Adagio that serves as an introduction to a very short Allegro. During the piece's 37 minutes or so, it changes tempo thirteen times, and all of the movements are played "attacca" or without a pause between them, so it can be really difficult to keep track of where you are. The fourth movement, which is divided into several sections, and has the only repeat mark in the whole quartet, is almost a quartet within a quartet. You might recognize the fifth movement has a motive that Beethoven quotes in the last movement of his last quartet, Opus 135. If this quartet boggles your mind, you are not alone. You have generations of equally-boggled listeners. After repeated hearings, it often comes out as a real favorite.
Now we have arrived at Opus 130, which, complete with the Grosse Fugue, takes more than 50 minutes to perform. After listening to Opus 131 you should find this six-movement Quartet rather tuneful and easy to follow. It begins with a slow introduction (if you have heard any of the earlier Quartets of Mendelssohn, you will find it strangely familiar), and continues tunefully along. After the loveliest of Cavatinas, Beethoven tops this quartet off with a 16-minute fugue that is almost as difficult to follow by ear (or by score) as it is to play. This is one of the movements that scares listeners away from late Beethoven. I first heard it when I was in a class with David Diamond at Juilliard, and I didn't know what to make of it. Now I love it, but it has taken a long for that love to develop. It took me more than twenty years just be able to follow the workings of the counterpoint, so don't despair.
Beethoven's audience didn't like the Fugue, and his publisher suggested that the piece should be published with an alternative Finale. The Grosse Fugue was published as a separate opus (133). My preferred way of listening to this piece is with both the Fugue and the Finale!
I own many sets of Beethoven Quartets, so I can make a few recommendations:
The Borodin set on Chandos is one of my current favorites, as is the Alban Berg's set, which has also been recorded on DVD. The Leipzig String Quartet also has an excellent set. The Vegh Quartet's 1952 set is exceptional, as is the Quartetto Italiano's set. I like the Colorado Quartet's set a lot (they observe all of Beethoven's repeats), and I like the Eroica Quartet's set (they use 19th century instruments).
My favorite recording of Opus 130 (with the Grosse Fugue) is the 1984 Vermeer Quartet recording on Teldec. I don't know if it is still available on CD, but I did find an LP on ebay.
There are a lot more Beethoven Quartet performances on YouTube, and all the scores are available (for free) right here.