What made the Joachim Quartet so special?
This is the big question.
Since there are no recordings, we must rely on the account of witnesses, which are subjective.
First, though, there are some relevant facts that should be taken into account:
- The many years that they played regularly together. Three of the four played together for 28 years, from 1879-1907. The turnover was almost always in the second violin position. There were thirteen years of the same personnel from 1879-1892, and almost ten years with no changes from 1897 to the end.
- All the players were also on the faculty of the Hochschule and were all chosen by Joachim. It was as director of the Hochschule and as the leader of the quartet that Joachim composed all their programs for the series at the Singakademie. There is no doubt that Joachim had complete control over all artistic matters having to do with the Quartet.
- Joachim kept their repertoire within clear parameters to focus on the main works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. This core repertoire gave the players the opportunity to understand the development of the genre in a new and profound way. Nowadays it is normal for quartet players to also be professors of their instrument who have studied and analyzed the repertoire. But back when Joachim began his project, the critical editions of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were not even complete. All sixteen of Beethoven’s quartets might have been in the repertoire of most groups, but Joachim programmed many more quartets by Haydn and Mozart than others did.
- Of the Quartet’s other repertoire, Joachim had a famous personal connection with Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. Most of the string chamber works by Brahms were performed before they were even published. This gave the quartet a claim to a more authoritative interpretation than others of these works. (Schubert is the remaining composer who was regularly programmed.)
- The Quartet played on superior instruments. It was certainly special to have all four instruments made by Antonio Stradivari. (Joachim, who owned three Stradivarius violins, loaned one to whomever was the second violinist at the time. The violist played on an Amati until Robert von Mendelssohn lent Wirth a Strad beginning in the 1890s).
I think some of these factors are hard to appreciate because they became the standard for excellence in the twentieth century, and we now take them for granted. The Amadeus Quartet, for instance, was together for forty years, and recorded not only all the Beethoven but also all the Mozart and Brahms chamber music.