What a string quartet requires above all is balance, a commitment to ensemble playing and a passion for intimate dialogue. These things were too often lacking in last night's recital at the Marvin Theater, when four faculty members of the George Washington University music department teamed up for a program of quartets by Haydn, Ravel and Schubert.
It was the first violinist, George Steiner, who seemed to have the most difficulty conforming to the notion of communal music making. A former member of the National Symphony, Steiner dominated the proceedings from the first note to the last. At times his demonstrative tone and attack were both appropriate and moving, but frequently he drowned out his fellow players, denying the listener access to the inner voices and converging harmonies. In addition, he suffered from intonation problems throughout.
The three remaining musicians -- second violinist Virginia Harpham, violist Richard Parnas and cellist John Martin -- fared considerably better. All principals with the National Symphony, each of them displayed a formidable technique and command of dynamic shadings.
Despite the generally unbalanced nature of the playing, each of the works had its moments. Ravel's Quartet in F brought out the fire in the players' souls, as well as their rhythmic acuity. And in passages of Schubert's Quartet in A Minor -- a work that alternates between ebullience and sadness -- they achieved an affecting instrumental blend.