Reviews of the quartet’s performances in its first decade were almost always completely positive. The only complaints were about the conservative programming, with the prevalence of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, some Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn–and almost always Beethoven.
In 1878 a program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s Op. 131 had a reviewer commenting that since the Joachim Quartet concerts were “the caviar of musical delicacies,” the Singakademie was filled to the last place. Still, it “would be even better if still-living composers could be represented.”
The Berlin pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka complained in 1879 that the only living composer represented was Brahms:
It is to be regretted that a quartet party like this should be so conservative and exclusive in their choice of pieces. If we except Brahms who is closely connected with Joachim through personal friendship no living composer is noticed. In no country in the world (I don’t know how they manage in China and thereabouts) are the living artists more ignored than in Germany and it is no exaggeration to say that the German artist only becomes famous by his obituary.
Scharwenka made an exception for Brahms because he was a friend, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Quartet performed five of his works before they were published (Op. 51 #2, 1873; Op. 67, 1876; Op. 111, 1890; Op. 114, 1891; and Op. 115, 1891). Furthermore, Brahms was not exactly a crowd-pleaser in the 1870s. Joachim’s persistence with Brahms was often a battle with the audience.
Furthermore, the Quartet did play and premiere works by other living composers. A total of twenty-three different living composers appeared on their quartet series over the years. Many of the composers they featured were on the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule (Kiel, Rudorff, Bargiel, Herzogenberg, Gernsheim, Kahn, Schrattenholz, Dohnányi). In the 1870s, Kiel, a highly respected composer at the time, was given five performances. This programming was in part due to the way the Quartet had been created as a part of the Hochschule for the purposes of teaching, so that students of Kiel would be able to hear their teacher’s latest work. Therefore, the accusation of conservative programming did not take into account the unique basis on which this ensemble operated. Additionally, these quartet concerts were meant to serve not only as “model for the students and for the enjoyment of the public…but also at the same time as a means for the shaping (Bildung) of the nation.”
A look at the other chamber music concerts of the time indicates their programs were not substantially different than that of the Joachim Quartet. For instance, the Florentine Quartet gave a concert in Hamburg in February of 1870, playing three quartets: Haydn D minor (presumably op. 76 no. 2), Mozart C major (presumably K. 465 “Dissonant”), and Schumann’s A major quartet, Op. 41, no. 3.
Two programs from other quartets in 1878 indicate that when new music was played critics also complained about that; they could not be pleased either way, it seems. A concert on the Leipzig Gewandhaus chamber music series featured quartets by Haydn (Op. 33 #3), and Beethoven (Op. 59 #1), and a Piano Quintet in C minor, op. 16, by Hermann Goetz.The Goetz piece was criticized but the rest of the concert was praised. That same month, the Heckmann Quartet from Cologne played an all-Grieg concert at the Gewandhaus. The reviewer was indignant at being subjected to “a purely propagandistic concert” that advocated for this living composer.
Criticism of a narrow repertoire continued, but in 1880 a writer for the short-lived journal Musik-Welt argued that it was still the case that the late Beethoven Quartets were not sufficiently understood. The concert of 12 November had ended with Op. 127:
It is hard to believe there are four other men alive who could play this opus so poetically, without exaggeration and with such technical perfection. But the impression it made was very uneven. It takes a lot, an awful lot to be able to follow one of the last Beethoven Quartets with attention and to the purpose, and I fear even among the regulars in the audience–meaning among our most musical public–there are only a very few whose understanding would be developed enough to give an accounting of the impression such a work made on them, to say nothing of accounting for the value of it; certainly most would say a lot about how they had liked it. We say this not to make a joke, but rather in order to request the Joaquin Quartet bring these revelations of Beethoven before the public as often as possible. Only repeated hearing can awake in the truly educated listeners an intimation of understanding and with it the inclination to study.
Nevertheless, critics continued to target the Joachim Quartet for its neglect of new music. A critic for the Musikalisches Wochenblatt claimed after the beginning of the 1881 season that “these downright show-stopping concerts no longer have the influx (Zufluss) of earlier,—a stagnation has crept in, which, inconceivably, has been felt even by the old timers and the elite of the public who have attending since before time began.” This mercifully unnamed critic could not have been more off the mark. Furthermore, the concert being reviewed did include a new work—a quartet by Dvořák!
The preconception that the Joachim Quartet was conservative and did not play new music persisted, with the press raising the issue periodically over their remaining decades. Someone did try to respond in writing to the criticism at least once: in 1889 there was a “Note from the editor” in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt:
With regard to the remark of our esteemed reporter about the Joachim Quartet, a correction has been written to us that they have given a new string quartet by R. Kahn in December and in January will play a new piece by Herzogenberg.
The works mentioned were both unpublished at the time of performance: Kahn’s Quartet in A major became his op. 8, and Herzogenberg’s F minor Quartet was his op. 63, which the Quartet played two more times after the premiere.
I think the Joachim Quartet concerts seemed more conservative because occasional programs dispensed with the one relatively new piece. The traditional chamber music program typically began and ended with a “classic,” but made room for a chamber work by a regional and/or living composer. By occasionally omitting that work and sticking to a formula of three quartets per concert, the Joachim Quartet series acquired the reputation of the most conservative of chamber music organizations.