A widespread opinion in recent research about the performance of Beethoven’s works is that artists need to restore a connection to "tradition," and that recordings from the early twentieth century can help with this. However, these early recordings tell us most about the aesthetics and performance ideals of their day, and hence how Beethoven and his string quartets were received by early twentieth-century audiences. Case studies of early recordings of Beethoven middle-period quartets reveal ways in which these these performances differed, sometimes radically, from the kinds of performances Beethoven would have expected to hear, especially with regard to the use of the bow and vibrato. On the other hand, in terms of flexibility of expression these performances are close to performance ideals of the early nineteenth century.

More recent recordings of this repertoire show that the artistic freedoms heard in the early twentieth-century performances have not been lost in later performances; rather, they have been renegotiated. The extension of performance options in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century recordings is due, in large measure, to the growing popularity of historically informed performance practices. This openness is heard, ironically, especially in mainstream ensembles, possibly because there the imperative to Werktreue—fidelity to the text, and to the composer—is differently felt, or less heeded. Again, performances reflect the times: the fashions, understandings, and ideas about Beethoven of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.