!st Movement performed by the Jasper String Quartet:
Here's a vintage recording of the complete work, featuring the renowned Busch Quartet (from 1936):
Allmusic: This work may well be the most mild-mannered and conventional of Beethoven's late quartets. It is ironic that he originally had more grandiose ideas for it, intending it to contain six movements, including one subtitled "La gaieté" and an Adagio apparently of darker character. In any event, Beethoven settled on this less ambitious, but still effective scheme of four movements, with an Adagio theme and variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a jovial finale.
What is unusual about this quartet, however, is not its traditional qualities—rare enough in Beethoven—but its lack of muscularity and conflict in the first movement. One hears little nervous energy and angst here, but plenty of lyricism in the main Allegro section that makes up the bulk of the movement. The introduction is marked Maestoso and presents a fanfare that builds up, imparting some expectation of drama and drive, if not of Beethovenian heroic fury. What follows is a lively theme of gentle, lyrical character. In fact, all the thematic material in this movement is nearly free of tension and grit. There is some contrapuntal activity in the fabric of the main theme (and its variants), and the fanfare of the opening returns just before the development, but merely yields once more to the cheerful main material. If there is anything unusual about this movement, it is the development, which resembles a succession of variations. The recapitulation maintains the generally peaceful tenor of the movement, and the coda turns sweet and caressing.
The aforementioned second movement theme-and-variations (Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile) presents a lovely, songful melody and six variations. Yet the movement has a thematic structure similar to a typical ABA scheme, with the third variation comprising the middle section. But one may hear it as separate variations as well. It has been asserted that the main theme does not appear conducive to thematic offshoots, owing to its mellifluous character and seeming uniqueness (and lush beauty), but Beethoven manages to mine its depths to find the six very attractive variations and a coda. The third variation's prayerful character imparts a religiosity that seems to highlight, if not define, the mood of the entire Adagio.
The third movement Scherzando vivace breaks with the gentler moods of the music thus far. It begins, like the first movement, with a fanfare, but here on pizzicato strings. The main theme appears on the cello, and is bandied about amid a fugal treatment that starts, stops, and starts again. The middle section is colorful in its dance-like music and constantly changing ideas. On the whole, this movement offers splendid contrast to the lyricism of the preceding pair.
The finale returns to the mood of the first two movements, with lively but unhurried music that shows no sign of that Beethovenian nervous energy. This is music of folk character, with the main theme sounding a bit oafish, but cleverly so. Its slightly odd character and husky rhythmic accompaniment impart a rural air to the proceedings. The thematic material of the second subject is in much the same mode. There is a short development section, followed by a reprise (which comes after a deftly wrought false reprise). This quartet was first published in Mainz in 1826. The composer dedicated it to Prince Nikolai Golitsin, who had commissioned him to write it and the two quartets that followed.