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Brahms: String Quartets & Quintets / Guarneri Quartet

Release Date: 02/03/2009 
Label:  Rca   Catalog #: 94195  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  David SoyerJohn DalleyArnold SteinhardtMichael Tree,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS String Quartets: Nos. 1–3. String Quintets: Nos. 1–2 Guarneri Str Qrt; Pinchas Zukerman (va) RCA 94195 (2 CDs: 143:12)

It’s high time someone finally got around to issuing these recordings on CD. For that, the folks at arkivmusic.com are to be commended, for it is they who obtained permission from Sony BMG Masterworks to press and distribute these original RCA releases in recognition of the Guarneri String Quartet’s upcoming retirement at the end of the 2009 season. The recordings, made between 1974 Read more and 1979, were released only on LP and have never been transferred to CD heretofore. Considering that these discs are pressed on an on-demand basis, arkivmusic.com is also to be commended for making the two-disc set available at a reduced price of $23.99, not quite a budget twofer, but still less than the cost of two full-priced CDs.

If there is one unfortunate drawback to this release, it’s that the decision to accommodate all five of these works on two discs necessitated a break after the second movement of the B?-Major Quartet, its remaining two movements being continued on disc 2. Given the standard audio CD format, this was unavoidable. But an alternative would have been to use all layers (channels) of an SACD in two-channel stereo (non surround sound) format to contain all five works on a single disc. BIS accomplished this neat trick with their four-disc set of Mendelssohn’s complete string symphonies, fitting them all onto a single SACD that plays for over four hours. The only problem with this approach is that the disc is not of the compatible hybrid variety, meaning that you must have an SACD player to play it.

That minor complaint aside, this is an important addition to the catalog. The Guarneri String Quartet, once America’s foremost chamber ensemble, was at its peak when it made these recordings. Founded in 1964, the Guarneri is not only one of the longer lasting string quartet ensembles, but it can also boast of having one of the lowest turnovers in personnel over its long history. Only one position, that of cellist David Soyer, who played with the group from its inception until he retired in 2002, changed hands. Soyer relinquished his chair to Peter Wiley. The other members—violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley plus violist Michael Tree—have been on board since day one.

What struck me first as I began listening to these Guarneri recordings—long familiar to me on LP—was that compared to groups like the Emerson Quartet, for example, the Guarneri is not as polished sounding or as technically flawless. But at the time, they represented the vanguard of the new and modern in American string-quartet-playing, and the model that would evolve, or, as some might have it, devolve, into the efficient if somewhat generic approach of current-day ensembles.

The second thing that struck me was the Guarneri’s extraordinary capacity for expressiveness and responsiveness to the music’s changing moods and dynamics. In slow movements and moments of lyrical calm, the ensemble exudes a warmth of tone and temperament that rocks you in its gentle embrace; while in fast movements and agitated passages, there is, if not always ideal execution, a heightened tension and a real sense of battle-engaged commotion. Just listen to the coda to the first movement of the C-Minor Quartet to experience that gripping, pulse-quickening rush—or in the Andante moderato of the A-Minor Quartet, the tentative, halting hopefulness thwarted at each attempt by the most heartbreaking, subtle, falling portamentos.

We speak a lot these days of historically informed performances, and most often the conversation turns to practices believed to have been in vogue during the 17th and 18th centuries. But we don’t accord nearly as much attention or deference to what performing styles and practices were really like towards the end of the 19th century, when Brahms wrote much of his music. The “inconvenient truth” is that a ripe, rich, romanticized style of playing was most likely the order of the day, and that performances of Brahms’s symphonies by the likes of Felix Dessoff, Hans Richter, and Hans von Bülow were surely closer to what the composer himself would have known than are the historical revisionist theories thrust upon these works by the likes of John Eliot Gardiner. The point I posit here is that in our 21st-century sophistication we tend to reject as maudlin a style of playing that involves too obvious and/or too frequent use of portamento, vibrato, and certain fingering and bowing techniques. Some of us, therefore, might be quite taken aback, even appalled, at hearing this music in a truly historically informed performance—i.e., the way it was actually played in Brahms’s lifetime.

There is nothing maudlin—no overdoing of portamento, vibrato, or other stylistic idiosyncrasies—that characterizes the Guarneri’s Brahms; but these are highly expressive, romanticized, and occasionally sentimentalized readings. This was the Guarneri’s way and, I strongly suspect, Brahms’s way as well. This impression is further reinforced in the two string quintets with Pinchas Zukerman’s sumptuous viola tone enriching the ensemble’s texture.

There are many recordings of Brahms’s quartets and quintets I take pleasure in and have recommended—the Emerson, Colorado, Sine Nomine, and Muir Quartets—some on the basis of their astonishing technical spit and polish; but I think if I could keep only one, it would be the Guarneri, for I find something deeply satisfying on an emotional level about these performances. It’s as if they are speaking directly to and from Brahms in a kind of reciprocal communion. For all their technical perfection, I don’t get that feeling from the others.

The sound quality on the masters from which I assume these CDs were processed was far, far better than what RCA’s folding Dynaflex LPs would have had us believe. For the first time, we can hear just how fine these recordings were. This is a special release, and one that is a must-have for any Brahms-lover and serious collector of chamber music recordings.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in C minor, Op. 51 no 1 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  David Soyer (Cello), John Dalley (Violin), Arnold Steinhardt (Violin),
Michael Tree (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1865-1873; Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/1979 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 51 no 2 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  David Soyer (Cello), John Dalley (Violin), Arnold Steinhardt (Violin),
Michael Tree (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1865-1873; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/1978 
Quartet for Strings no 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  David Soyer (Cello), John Dalley (Violin), Arnold Steinhardt (Violin),
Michael Tree (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875; Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/1974 
Quintet for Strings no 1 in F major, Op. 88 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Pinchas Zukerman (Viola), David Soyer (Cello), John Dalley (Violin),
Arnold Steinhardt (Violin), Michael Tree (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1882; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/1978 
Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Michael Tree (Viola), Arnold Steinhardt (Violin), John Dalley (Violin),
David Soyer (Cello), Pinchas Zukerman (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Guarneri String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/1978 

Featured Sound Samples

String Quartet no 1: IV. Allegro
String Quintet no 1: I. Allegro non troppo ma con brio
String Quintet no 2: IV. Vivace ma non troppo presto

Sound Samples

I. Allegro
II. Romanze: Poco adagio
III. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo; Un poco più animato
IV. Allegro
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante moderato
III. Quasi menuetto, moderato; Allegretto vivace
IV. Allegro non assai
I. Vivace
II. Andante
III. Agitato (Allegretto non troppo)
IV. Poco allegretto con variazioni
I. Allegro non troppo ma con brio
II. Grave ed appassionato; Allegretto vivace; Tempo I; Presto; Tempo I
III. Allegro energico
I. Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
II. Adagio
III. Un poco Allegretto
IV. Vivace ma non troppo presto

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