The Alban Berg Quartet was founded in 1971 and within a decade was established as one of the finest string quartets in the world. It was known for its large recorded sets of the complete quartets of many masters of the genre.
Its founding members were all part of a Viennese chamber orchestra, who, while getting together to play chamber music, discovered the musical rapport essential to founding a great quartet. Deciding to honor a Viennese composer in their choice of names, they selected Alban Berg, one of the members of the group of atonal composers known as the Second Viennese School. According to violist Thomas Kakuska, the choice reflects Berg's position as a member of this revolutionary group of composers, but also his status as the most traditional-minded of them. Kakuska said, "We have chosen our name to show that we want to make a balance between the Romantic repertoire and also to play contemporary music."
The quartet achieved its interpretations by consensus, not by the domination of any individual member. In addition to the given qualities of excellent ensemble (clean intonation and a sense of unanimity of purpose, the qualities most often mentioned by reviewers) was the remarkable uniformity of tone among its four members. Its sound was a warm one, although it could be rhythmically incisive when called for.
Its highly acclaimed recordings include complete sets of the quartets of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartók and the string quartet works of Berg and Anton Webern. The group also recorded substantial amounts of the quartet repertory of Mozart, Haydn, Dvorák, both Janácek quartets, and works by Ravel, Schumann, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Berio. Its repertoire of newer music includes acclaimed recordings of quartets by von Einem, Haubenstock-Ramati, Rihm, Schnittke, and Urbanner, many of them composed for and dedicated to the quartet. In 1977, it paid tribute to Franz Schubert by playing only his music during his 200th anniversary year.
The members of the quartet -- which included violinists Günter Pichler, Gerhard Schulz, Kakuska, and cellist Valentin Erben, of whom Pichler, Schulz, and Erben were founding members -- were all faculty members of the Wiener Hochschule für Musik and also taught master classes on German chamber music regularly at the Musikhochschule in Cologne. The group won 30 major international recording awards, representing virtually every top prize of note. Before Kakuska's death in 2005, he asked that Isabel Charisius, one of his students, take up his position. She did so successfully, but nevertheless, the quartet decided to end its career in 2008.