Classical Review: Guarneri Quartet at the Kennedy Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beethoven's late quartets are music of mortality. Amalgamations of individual voices grouped into an uneasy collective, constantly testing the boundaries of harmony and tonality that corral them together, they raise existential questions about the form, pushing at the limits of quartet-hood.

The Guarneri Quartet played the A Minor, Op. 132, on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center on a program that was a gesture of valedictory and farewell. The quartet is 45 years old and has undergone only one personnel change in all those years, when the cellist David Soyer was replaced by his student Peter Wiley in 2001.

This year, the group has announced, will be its last onstage. The Guarneri's Washington performance comes at the beginning of a long and grueling farewell that extends across North America and runs through June.

This has been a beloved group, and a great one. At its peak, it offered a warm, luxurious sound, a way of embracing the ear with its music, a vital force captured on countless recordings. (Sony is reissuing eight of the quartet's past recordings as downloads on iTunes and Amazon this week to coincide with the start of the farewell.) On Tuesday, the group was looking back to this glorious past, basking in the embers of what was once a strong flame. It is time to say goodbye.

What the Guarneri offered was the aural equivalent of a late-period painting.

The brushstrokes of sound had begun to separate out, revealing glimpses of bare canvas: The warmth was still present in concentrated bursts, but not enough to cover the whole surface of the work. The result was an impressionistic sense of the whole, conveying glimpses of an image of profundity.

The evening was a mosaic of shards of sounds, bits of memory. John Dalley's rich second violin emitted aphorisms of throaty, solid wisdom. Arnold Steinhardt, looking patrician and elegant as always, strayed delicately through his part, sometimes stumbling, sometimes finding sweet moments of beguiling beauty. The Beethoven quartet's emotional heart is the slow third movement, the "Heiliger Dankgesang," which Beethoven composed after a severe illness and titled "A Holy Song of Thanksgiving From a Convalescent to the Deity." As a paean to the simple fact of being alive, it took on new resonance in this performance.

The second half of the program was another monumental late work and repertory cornerstone, Schubert's Quintet in C -- "late," at least, in the chronology of Schubert's life, since it was one of the last things he wrote. For this, Soyer, now 85, rejoined his erstwhile colleagues and assumed a central position, literally and figuratively, producing a startlingly huge sound that became a firm support for the thinner sounds atop him, as if issuing Solomonic pronouncements with fleet fingers.

It was less a memorable performance than a commemoration: at once an effective farewell and a moving evocation of a shared past.

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