RCA Red Seal 88697158382, 70:45 ****:
On 28 November 2008, I attended one of several “farewell” concerts by the Guarneri String Quartet, having performed before the public since 1964 and now disbanding, so the individual members might pursue their own interests. Except for the replacement of cellist David Soyer with Peter Wiley, the membership had remained intact, their sound having attained its lean, muscular drive and incisive, homogeneous tone in the late 1960s, after a shaky start at SUNY Binghamton, where I first heard them in their role as artists-in-residence. These inscriptions, made 2004-2006, will likely figure among the last of their commercial recording ventures. The accompanying booklet, by the way, is a lovely postcard from Budapest.
Dohnanyi’s Second Quartet (1906) reveals influences from both Dvorak and Brahms, though its haunted atmosphere in the first movement pays a debt or two to early Schoenberg. Emphatic and nostalgic at once, the opening Andante–Allegro exploits the sixth degree of the D-flat scale, invoking dialogue between first violin and cello. The F Minor Presto acciacato proves a driven, obsessive scherzo in syncopated figures from above, over a menacing series of ostinato riffs in the cello. The F Major trio section clears the emotional debris, with John Dalley’s providing quicksilver eighth notes in the second violin part. The cello returns with its mad dance, now supported by a syncopated viola who soon moves to a dominant pedal point and on to spasmodic coda. Dohnanyi changes the color of his quartet by opening the last movement in C-sharp Minor rather than its enharmonic, major key of origin. In an extended, often grim dirge utilizing cyclic principles, Dohnanyi recalls elements from the second, F Minor, movement; then we have contrapuntal episodes that superimpose the opening, yearning theme of movement one onto the heady mix that ends, luminously, in D-flat Major. Arnold Steinhardt’s superheated recitative captures our attention, as do the constant, alternately impulsive and melodic figures from cellist Peter Wiley.
Kodaly’s Quartet No. 2 (1916) opts for a decidedly Magyar sensibility, a folk idiom in which harsh dissonances and clashing moments of bitonality prove welcome. From the outset in 6/8, bird calls and open-fifth drone effects permeate the modal, eerily melodic textures that would like to land on D Major but do not always conform to this sense of stability. Steinhardt’s violin solo near the end of the movement might remind some auditors of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Violin and cello dominate the opening of the second movement, which is itself subdivided into two sections. Much of the writing casts an improvisatory ethos on the proceedings; chunks and fits and starts of melodic tissue emerge, only to dissolve into airy effects. Then, a decided folk tune arises from the viola, then some rising fifths quasi religioso; and now, the heavy-footed gypsy dance opens in earnest--Allegro giocoso–with drones and pizzicati aplenty. The texture thickens mightily, rife with syncopations and rocket figures in Hungarian style over rocking colors that move to an energetic, wild coda clearly planted on D Major.
Dohnanyi’s Third Quartet (1926) opens with the sound of Brahms, both elegiac and agitated. The music gravitates between A Minor and A Major, the sonata-form structure modeled on the Brahms originals in A Minor and C minor, Op. 51. Nice work between the violins and Michael Tree’s plaintive viola, especially as they move to a heated episode that ends the exposition proper. The development section projects a sturm und drang affect, turbulent, martial, modal, rhythmically charged. The recap, still superheated, becomes symphonic is sonority, rich, thick, passionate. The Andante movement in A Major is a series of variations on the opening chorale, utilizing shortened and extended versions of the note-values, adding supplementary motifs at the various periods of transition. The last movement lends a page to Bartok’s Violin Concerto, since the same pitches appear as in the first movement, but now in a vibrant, galloping, excited rhythm and pungent, chromatic harmonies. The second theme evokes a sultry tango, then it reverts to the undulant, gypsy motif with its skipping intervals of a ninth. The torrid coda will make as fine a “farewell” gesture from the Guarneri as anything they have played over the course of an illustrious career.