Guarneri Quartet, Vol. IV  -  Beethoven & Haydn  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1225)
Item# s0810
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Guarneri Quartet, Vol. IV  -  Beethoven & Haydn  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1225)
S0810. GUARNERI QUARTET: String Quartet #3 in D, Op.18, #3; String Quartet #11 in f, Op.95; String Quartet #16 in F, Op.135; String Quartet in G, Op.76, #1 - Allegro ma non troppo (Haydn). [Highly distinguished performances recorded in a fresh, open acoustic before an ecstatic audience!] (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1225, Live Performance, 11 Jan., 1980, Salle Pleyel, Paris. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“I was prepared to say, on hearing the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18, #3 string quartet, that this live recording from Paris in 1980 was special. So it proved through all three quartets - one early middle, and late - but the Guarneri Quartet is already a known quantity in Beethoven, having made two complete cycles, first for RCA, then Philips (now on Decca). The more I listened, however, the more I felt that something exceptional was happening, which takes a little explaining.

For those who would rather skip the explanations, I can offer a summary judgment. This is a stunning recital in which the Guarneri play with exceptional skill, living up to their reputation for being the most virtuosic American quartet in the generation after the Juilliard Quartet. The recorded sound from Salle Pleyel, as remastered by producer Yves St.-Laurent, is superb, fully up to studio standards. But those elements aren’t enough to get at the heart of what I think is happening.

I was deeply impressed when I first heard the Guarneri in concert and was aware of their gilt pedigree as graduates of the Curtis Institute (except for cellist David Soyer, who was the oldest by a decade and had played in the NBC Symphony); they were also in Rudolf Serkin’s orbit at the Marlboro Festival. Yet I never became a fan of their RCA recordings. The sound tended to be close and dry, to the point of harshness when digitally transferred. The playing lacked joy and spontaneity. It was rather like hearing Heifetz, forced to admire his stellar technique and personal authority without being able to escape the emotional aloofness that came with them.

What this live recital reveals is, first, the tonal beauty of the Guarneri Quartet when recorded with sufficient hall ambience that their sound could bloom. First violin Arnold Steinhardt was always singled out by reviewers for his talent - he was thought of as the best first violin of any American quartet at the time. But here, particularly in Op. 18/3, you hear a ravishing ensemble sound that needed all four members, including second violin John Dalley and viola Michael Tree. It wouldn’t’ appear that in their outside lives the four were friends or even, as revealed in a documentary film made about them in later years, that they were always civil to one another. But in these performances there is harmony, beginning with their sound yet going much further.

All three performances display striking interpretations, from the charm of the early quartet to the intense power of the ‘Serioso’ Quartet and the seasoned maturity in Op. 135. One factor is the added exuberance of a live performance, which plays a considerable role here - Op. 95 is attacked almost vehemently, not just in the first movement but in a sustained arc of emotional intensity. I’ve never heard a reading quite like it, where the aim is to be to convey the music’s turbulence first and foremost.

The performance could be considered too aggressive, but the Guarneri play with extraordinary purpose and precision. This also shows up in the finale of Op. 18/3. Their two studio recordings are impressive technically (the RCA much more so than the Philips), but on this occasion the playing exudes the kind of joy that comes to musicians who realize that they are at the top of their game. I’d also venture that all three quartets on the program illustrate the Guarneri’s capacity for insight. This was never a strong point in their favor when set beside the Busch, Budapest, or Alban Berg Quartet. I assumed that hundreds of concerts wore out their interest in Beethoven.

Here you feel that every note matters. The moving line sings; the phrasing is dynamic; the opportunities to bring out the extraordinary aspects of each work are eagerly seized. No cheap effects are achieved by simply being loud, fast, and showy. In the Vivace movement of Op. 135, and later in the finale, the tonal variety from the Guarneri brings lyrical tenderness that is allowed to erupt into unbeautiful sounds for the sake of the music. Applause is included from an enthusiastic Paris audience, and they are rewarded with a vibrant Haydn encore.

In a word, these are thrilling performances that made me re-evaluate how gifted the Guarneri Quartet was in its prime. Highly recommended.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

"Until the year 2000, the New York City-based Guarneri Quartet consisted of the same four players who comprised the group at its 1964 founding: Arnold Steinhardt (violin), a former assistant concertmaster under Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra; John Dalley (violin), a one-time member of the Oberlin Quartet; Michael Tree (viola), formerly a highly respected concert violinist who converted to the viola; and David Soyer (cello), previously a member of several chamber ensembles, including the Bach Aria Group. Few chamber groups have maintained both the same personnel and such a consistent level of renown for so enduring a period. In 2000, Peter Wiley replaced David Soyer as the group's cellist. He is a former member of the Beaux Arts Trio.

The Guarneri Quartet's roots date to the 1964 Marlboro Festival, where as individual musicians they appeared with various ensembles and with pianist Rudolf Serkin. At the urging of violinist Alexander Schneider, the group collectively agreed to form a string quartet, taking their name from the famous Italian family of violin makers. It quickly achieved critical acclaim with 1965 appearances at the Spoleto Festival and Metropolitan Museum of Art. The group has since regularly appeared at the latter venue and have established other such recurring events, such as the Lincoln Center-based series entitled Guarneri and Friends, which began in 1973. The Guarneri Quartet also made immediate headway in the recording venue, with its traversal of the 16 Beethoven quartets (and Grosse Fugue) for RCA, issued from 1966-1969 [S0245 & S0244], which received several prestigious awards. The group gave highly acclaimed performances of all the Beethoven quartets in a historic 1970 series of concerts in London. For the first decade or so of its existence, the Guarneri players had developed a reputation largely associated with eighteenth and nineteenth century repertory staples, but in the mid-'70s, the group shifted its focus to include important works from the twentieth century, like the six quartets of Béla Bartok, which the Quartet also recorded to critical acclaim. Its repertory would later broaden to include not only works by Stravinsky, but Henze (piano quintet) and Rorem (String Quartet #3). Most of the group's early recordings appeared on RCA, but they moved to Philips in 1986, their first issue coming late that year with the Smetana String Quartet #1, 'From My Life'. They re-recorded much of their repertory for Philips including the Beethoven quartets. In the late 1990s, the group also started issuing recordings on the Arabesque label and in 2001, they made their first compact disc for a new label - Surrounded by Entertainment.

The Guarneri Quartet has also garnered numerous awards apart from those associated with its many recordings. In 1982, New York's Mayor Edward Koch gave the group the New York Seal of Recognition and the State University of New York (S.U.N.Y.) issued members honorary doctorate degrees in 1983, their second such citation, the first coming in 1976 from the University of South Florida.

The Guarneri Quartet has also reached its audiences via numerous broadcasts over radio and several appearances on television, including a particularly notable one from 1990 on the CBS Network's Sunday Morning program, hosted by Charles Kuralt, which featured an interview with the players. The group was also the subject of a 1989 film entitled High Fidelity - The Guarneri String Quartet. Several books have focused on their artistry as well, including the 1986 Alfred A. Knopf publication THE ART OF QUARTET PLAYING: The Guarneri in Conversation with David Blum. In 1998, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published Arnold Steinhardt's own book INDIVISIBLE BY FOUR: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony."

- Robert Cummings,