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.
“Yves St-Laurent presents the group in the music of Beethoven, with one Haydn encore, from Salle Pleyel, Paris on 17 January 1980. Recorded sound is warm and focused, each of the participants in clear, articulate definition. The opening D Major Quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18 actually marks his debut as a creator in this medium, so long dominated by Haydn and Mozart. Even within the genial cast of the first movement Allegro and Presto finale, Beethoven’s capacity for counterpoint makes its mark. Guarneri emphasizes the seamless fluency of Beethoven’s early style, its simultaneous adherence to Classical conventions while occasionally jabbing us with a new feeling of forceful expression. The second movement Andante presents us a charming lied, touched by ornamental moments and sudden sighs indicative of a refined sense of sturm und drang. The syncopated Scherzo enjoys a refreshed rusticity, especially in the Trio section, in which the violins indulge in humorous, gypsy effects. Beethoven utilizes Haydn’s rondo-sonata form for the last movement, a hectic affair demanding much of Arnold Steinhardt and the busy accompaniment that supports him. The quick shifts of color and register impede our principals not at all, and the movement hustles by in the manner of a virtuoso, concertante piece for the first violin.
The so-called ‘Serioso’ Quartet of 1810 reveals the compressed passion of which Beethoven had become a master, especially in his two-movement piano sonatas. Beethoven in a letter at the time had complained, ‘Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever’, referring to the progress of his deafness. The unison opening of the f minor has a mere 11 notes, at first cramped but quickly escalating in octave space and harmonic audacity. The gambit of five-note urgency plays throughout as the music gains in fever and only momentary repose. The ensuing Allegretto poses an opening cello lament that soon becomes an intimate love song, ripe for fugato treatment. Michael Tree’s viola sounds particularly ardent as it leads into Soyer’s deep response. The third movement Allegro appears suddenly, an outgrowth of Beethoven’s severity of style, fervently intense and prone to find consolation in hymn-like passages. While driving tension and grueling anxiety define much of the last movement, a sudden, shimmering incursion of the major key serves to transcend all prior conflict and emotional turmoil. The resultant Bravos are well deserved.
The disarming simplicity of style Beethoven reveals in his 1826 F Major Quartet seems to relish its transparent economy of means, especially in the four-note tune set by the viola that infiltrates the texture of the opening 2/4 Allegretto. The Guarneri ambles along in this genial, somewhat mocking tone, that does occasionally soar to an ardent moment. The genial classicism of procedure seems to have taken its cue from the Eighth Symphony. The Vivace, however, derives its perverse pleasure from off-the-beat periods, landing on E-flat reluctantly. Steinhardt has a series of upward scales that sound like some weird practice-room exercise that soon sparks a madhouse ostinato that refuses to quit, only to return to the original, acerbic motive.
The slow movement in D-flat Major presents a devotional hymn that so appealed to Arturo Toscanini that he performed it as an orchestral showpiece. A theme and four variations, the music compresses Beethoven’s existential doubts and reassurances in an unbroken procession of a most intimate, personal nature. Beethoven designated the last movement, ‘The Difficult Resolution’, marking the slow, minor key opening ‘Must it be?’ The brief explosion of agonized doubt cedes to an affirmative Allegro, ‘It must be!’ a kind of Hamlet’s debate on the value of meaningful action. The sunshine playfulness announced fist by Soyer dominates until the uninvited return of introductory phrase, now an ominous, enraged presence. But the clouds dissipate, and the coda dances a merry form of the affirmation, moving pizz. and pp to a last nod of acceptance that the Paris audience well appreciates.
As a vibrant encore, Guarneri plays the Menuet from Haydn’s 1798 Quartet in G, a boisterous, syncopated business ready for Beethoven to imitate. The middle section has first violin Steinhardt offer up an Austrian laendler before the music breezes to its witty coda. A most satisfying demonstration of American, chamber music ensemble, highly recommended.”
—Gary Lemco, AUDIOPHILE AUDITION, 6 July, 2022
“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