The Guarneri String Quartet plays BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95 “Quartetto serioso;” String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3

by | Aug 4, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Guarneri String Quartet plays BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No.
11 in F Minor, Op. 95 “Quartetto serioso;” String Quartet No. 9 in C
Major, Op. 59, No. 3

Studio: VAI DVD 4339 
Video: 4:3 full screen Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 58 minutes
Rating: ****

Having enjoyed the Guarneri String Quartet as artists in residence
during my undergraduate days and early reviewer’s apprenticeship at
SUNY 1964-1968, watching these stunning performances taped 1986 at the
Old Westbury House on Long Island, New York brought back many memories
– not the least of which is how out of tune this ensemble was at their
debut concert. Well, we have all moved on; and these proteges of the
Budapest Quartet have congealed into one of the great chamber music
institutions of all contemporary music-making.

From the liner credits and from actor Hal Linden’s introductory
remarks, I get the impression that this present video is merely one of
the entire cycle of Beethoven Quartets surveyed by the Guarneri at the
Old Westbury House venue.  The camera takes us on a very brief
tourists’ run of the grounds and mansion, then on to the music room for
the F Minor Quartet, Op. 95 (1810).  I well recall my first
informal meeting with the Guarneri Quartet members prior to a Beethoven
cycle they traversed at SUNY, in which Arnold Steinhardt confessed how,
individually and as a group, the players found Beethoven
intimidating.  In this video, made some twenty years after the
ensemble’s inception, the old fears have quite dissipated.

Frankly, I am surprised the fire marshals did not have to run to the
blistered ruins after such a superheated performance. The intense heat
that these players generate might almost be a kind of expressive
exaggeration, given the already concentrated means of the work, which
may well mark the initiation of Beethoven’s third or synthetic period
of his development. The second movement has the camera linger on
violist Michael Tree, then to the brooding cello part of David Soyer,
then to the pair of violins at the hands of Steinhardt and John Dalley.
The Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, from which the quartet takes its
name, is razor sharp, fiercely driven,  with the emotional content
spread among all four principals, until the two violins enter with the
relatively reflective trio sections–then back to the dagger thrusts of
the relentless scherzo. The Larghetto has all the terse mystery of one
of the last piano sonatas; then the rocking figure of the Allegretto
agitato takes over, with Dalley’s blistering tremolos and sudden
onrushes of sound from all principals below the treble line. The
compression of the musical materials [musical compression – not audio
compression…Ed.] strikes one as much as the ferocious drive and
textural variety in the parts.  The coda seems to evaporate even
as its little, martial character takes hold.

Hal Linden introduces the C Major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3 as a
counterpart to the Eroica Symphony, a study in monolithic character.
The camera seems to fall between Dalley’s violin and Soyer’s cellos as
a natural fulcrum, until Steingardt’s concertante violin opens up, and
the whole ensemble takes on a clearly orchestral sonority. The alchemy
of the second movement has captured my own fancy since I first heard it
used as a movie soundtrack for the French film An Unmarried Woman.
Steinhardt plays the meditative slowly expanding line as Dalley’s
violin doubles and Soyer’s cello plays pizzicato. The Minuetto seems
other-worldly when compared to Beethoven’s scherzo for say, the B-flat
Major Symphony. The uneasy rhythmic figures and ambiguous tonal centers
advocate more for Mahler than Beethoven; perhaps the trio section takes
some refuge in the 19th century. Suddenly, Michael Tree’s viola opens
the fugal Allegro molto, and the camera simply follows the parts, with
Steinhardt’s virtuoso violin making sparks, while each of the others
blazes in turn. No wonder we compare Beethoven to Prometheus; the
Guarneri seem not to playing music at all, merely shifting points of
explosive matter around a luxurious room. By the time this moto
perpetuo ends, after a false cadence or two, you and your video
equipment will be quite pulverized.  The sound of chirping birds
heard at the video’s end seems entirely disingenuous.

–Gary Lemco

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