Beethoven approached his first string quartets with a characteristic combination of revolutionary confidence and pragmatic self-criticism, asking publisher Karl Amenda at one point to withhold what would become Opus 18, No. 1, "as I now for the first time know how to write quartets properly." On Friday and Saturday, the Stanford String Quartet revealed the fruits of that knowledge, offering all six of the Opus 18 quartets at the Campus Theatre of El Camino College.
Though not one of the more aggressively promoted of American quartets, the veteran Stanford group is one of solid accomplishment and well-suited to this music. Violinists Roy Malan and Susan Freier, violist Benjamin Simon and cellist Stephen Harrison do not seek out idiosyncrasy for its own exaggerated sake, but neither do they snub it, once fairly met, as is often the case here.
The Friday installment of the two-part survey began with No. 3 in D, which is generally agreed to be the first of the set chronologically. The Stanfords took a long time warming up into a fully meshed and committed ensemble, leaving much of its genial charm only suggested. Perhaps part of the trouble was adjusting to the supportive but quirky sound of the room, haunted as it was by the oppressive hum of a ventilation system.
Nothing, however, compromised the glories of the Quartet in G, No. 2. Seldom have the courtesies and flourishes of the first movement seemed more expressive or the blithe Allegro interruption of the singing Adagio more organically impelled. The Stanfords found character, not caricature, in the Scherzo and the finale and projected it all with limber, articulate playing.
The post-intermission performance, of the turbulent and bumptious C-minor Quartet, No. 4, did not remain at quite that level of inspired perfection. But it did surge with alert energy, aided by typically pristine textures and attractive, mid-weight sound.