Guarneri Quartet Gives Farewell Concert at Clarice Smith Center in College Park

The Guarneri String Quartet, calling it quits after making music and recordings since the 1960s, performs tonight at the Clarice Smith Center.
The Guarneri String Quartet, calling it quits after making music and recordings since the 1960s, performs tonight at the Clarice Smith Center. (By Dorothea Von Haeften)

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By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 24, 2009

As the venerable and venerated Guarneri Quartet completes its farewell season, giving its last Washington area concert tonight at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the passing is being marked by a batch of rereleases of its vintage recordings.

ArkivMusic.com, a CD and download provider, has licensed a trove of the quartet's legendary RCA recordings from its youthful heyday in the 1960s and '70s, when it was the greatest string quartet in the world. The group's unprecedented success led to longevity: When David Soyer retired as cellist in 2002 (replaced by Peter Wiley), the Guarneri had set a record for the longest tenure without a personnel change of any major quartet.

The group has always been one of the highest distinction and has continued recording throughout its existence, but certainly the virtuosity and intensity of its last two decades were on a different level than that heard in the first three. An entire generation has thus grown up being only dimly aware of the volcanic musical force the Guarneri once represented. The ArkivMusic releases are the first appearance of these iconic recordings since the LP era.

That is itself a scandal; RCA records (now enfolded into the Sony/BMG conglomerate) had a distinguished history of loyalty toward its top artists. Fritz Reiner, Artur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz, among others, enjoyed long, productive relationships with the label, and their recordings have never left the catalogues from the day they were first released, some of them passing through multiple formats. Chamber music is a less popular genre, but the Guarneri's preeminence and uniqueness was fully comparable to those artists.

To be fair, the Guarneri's classic Beethoven quartet cycle has been available on CD, as have its matchless recordings of chamber music with Rubinstein. But these eight new ArkivMusic releases, encompassing 34 works, bring back to our ears playing that has never been heard since, and which should never have left the field. While the notion of "highlights" for material of this exalted level is misplaced, both the Mendelssohn/Schumann and Brahms sets are the quintessential Guarneri, each of the four artists taking wing on their solos, the tutti passages blazing with fervor.

The Guarneri certainly didn't invent great quartet playing. For the genre to be as vital, and for so many composers to have written so many masterpieces, there have to have been high-level practitioners throughout its history. Famous soloists such as Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, William Primrose, David Oistrakh and Janos Starker all spent time in quartets, and the Guarneri's most celebrated precursors included the Budapest, Italiano, Borodin and Amadeus quartets. But those notwithstanding, what the Guarneri forged was something new.

The Guarneri operated on the principle that homogeneity was only one of many expressive tools. Their individual sounds were simply too virile and colorful to be subsumed into some corporate ideal. The group's hallmarks were the shimmering beauty of violinist Arnold Steinhardt's upper register, the warmth and absolute security of John Dalley's supporting voice on second violin, the soulful interjections of Michael Tree's viola, and cellist Soyer's gruff, sapient foundation. The Guarneri's approach did not always reflect exactly what you saw in the score, but it drew out the deepest humanity behind the notes. Each member was striving for an expressive ideal of beauty that could at times seem in conflict with notions of perfect quartet protocol. The result was a churning, boiling intensity, from which it was impossible to turn away lest you miss a single phrase.

The quartet performs tonight at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center. For tickets, call 301-405-ARTS or visit http://claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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