Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fine Arts Qrt
NAXOS 8.570151 (79.05)
This offering unleashed a flood of nostalgia. At the risk of dating myself (a truly bizarre concept if one thinks about it), my very first exposure to the Brahms and Beethoven quartets was from the eight hands of the Fine Arts Quartet—at its 1946 founding consisting of violinists Leonard Sorkin and Joseph Stepansky, violist Shephard Lehnhoff, and cellist George Sopkin—as recorded on the no longer extant
Concert-Disc label. Those recordings were budget releases; back in those halcyon days, they cost just under two dollars per disc. The early stereo sound was more than adequate for the time, and the range of repertoire was exceptional—from Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms through Hindemith, Bloch, Bartók, and beyond. Having been more than favorably impressed, not to mention enlightened, by their Beethoven and Brahms, I felt emboldened enough to dip into their Bloch, Hindemith, and Bartók offerings, and became a modernist despite my then musically conservative leanings. In all cases the FAQ’s high-energy playing seemed informed by an almost messianic zeal, a quality that became increasingly apparent as I later acquired LPs and CDs of this repertoire by virtually all of the name-brand quartets available. The Quarteto Italiano could be more sonically elegant; the Guarneri Quartet more impressively symphonic; the Emerson Quartet more analytically cogent, etc. etc.,
. . . ! In preparation for this review, I hauled out a few of those ancient Concert Disc LPs, which I hadn’t listened to in almost 20 years, and was astonished at their riveting freshness despite their undeniably dated sound.
As to be expected, over the years the FAQ underwent personnel changes. I won’t catalog them here since that information is easily found on the Internet. In this current incarnation the violinists are Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, the violist is Yuri Gandelsman, and the cellist is Wolfgang Laufer. On this release, all four ably uphold the FAQ’s legacy by providing edge-of-the-seat playing marked by probing insights into Schumann’s naively innocent German Romanticism. These three works are, despite their occasional backward glances at Beethoven, love letters to Clara—elaborated spiritual extensions of his ardent Lied,
—and that aspect is vividly conveyed here. The FAQ, as with all practicing string quartets, has the advantage of hindsight, and here it vividly shows the kinship between the first movement of Schumann’s Second String Quartet and that of Brahms’s op. 111 Quintet. Schumann celebrates the freshness of Romanticism’s morning; Brahms, its melancholy sunset.
The FAQ’s intonation and balances are beyond reproach. Its ensemble is razor sharp in the quicker music, and in the slower moments its phrasing breathes naturally (no mean feat). Given the competition by such ensembles as the Emerson, Melos, and Takács Quartets, they shine. The sound of this disc is excellent—capturing the quartet’s distinctive timbre and steering a judicious course between linear detail and ensemble heft and mass.
In short, this is desert island stuff.
FANFARE: William Zagorski
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