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Young, And Less Young, String Quartets

March 16, 1986|HERBERT GLASS

In the chancy world of the string quartet, with its huge investments of time and high failure rate, any ensemble that has played together for less than a decade more often than not has to prove itself as an entity.

It's a distinct pleasure, then, to encounter what would seem to be the debut recording of the Mendelssohn String Quartet (not to be confused with the Bartholdy Quartet from Germany), a mature ensemble of youthful Americans formed only six years ago.

The ensemble's choice of a debut program shows the same imaginativeness that is apparent in its playing: Dvorak's gorgeously songful, far too seldom heard Quartet in C, Opus 61, and Felix Mendelssohn's featherweight Andante and Scherzo, Opus 81 (Musicmasters MMD 20102H, LP only).

The Mendelssohns attack the music boldly and energetically. And, happily, prove as keenly attuned to Dvorak's lyric outpourings as to his terse rhythmicality. Another point in the recording's favor is that it is a studio job with a live-performance feel, in that it progresses from initial tentativeness--evidenced in wiry first violin tone and fleeting bits of imprecise ensemble in the opening pages--to eventual clean-toned homogeneity.

Dvorak provides the centerpiece as well for another debut recording by a new American ensemble, one with a distinguished old name, the Fine Arts Quartet.

Its oddly assorted program comprises the Dvorak Quartet in F ("American"), the First Quartet of Shostakovich and Turina's "Oracion del torero" (Gasparo GS-223, LP only).

While the individual strengths of the four musicians are palpable, the fact that the players have spent a mere three years together is even more obvious. They remain individuals, too often going their own, if not divergent then still insufficiently selfless, ways.

The new Fine Arts Quartet is, on present evidence, ill-prepared to face a world that holds the likes of the Bartok Quartet of Budapest, which has been playing Dvorak's "American" Quartet for a more than a quarter-century and, amazingly, has just recorded it for the first time, along with the same composer's even finer Quartet in A-flat, Opus 105 (Hungaroton SLPD 12577, LP only).

The Bartoks display a lush-toned, relaxed mastery born of long years of listening to each other and making adjustments--little abnegations of individuality--in the interest of homogeneous ensemble.

Another major ensemble, the 15-year-old Alban Berg Quartet of Vienna, presents Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and its immediate predecessor, the Quartet in A minor, Opus 29, generously coupled by EMI/Angel on a single disc (DS-38233, LP; CDC 47333, compact disc).

And it is played in typical Berg style: with terrific rhythmic snap, cool, lightly-vibratoed tone and a cleverly calculated dynamic scheme which allows the players to project the effect rather than the reality of weight and volume, thus creating a reserve of power and avoiding even a hint of stridence in the most impassioned moments of "Death and the Maiden."

The slightly younger, Netherlands-based Orlando Quartet, surely the only string quartet ever named after a 16th-Century composer of vocal music (Orlando di Lasso), bears a family resemblance to the Berg ensemble as regards weight of tone (light), selective employment of vibrato and a clearheaded "modern"--as opposed to Romantic--approach to a broad repertory.

Mozart finds particularly congenial interpreters in the Orlando, whose members are joined by some superb wind players--oboist Heinz Holliger and hornists Hermann Baumann and Michel Gasciarrino--in the Oboe Quartet in F, K. 370, and the delectable Divertimento in D, K. 251 (Philips 412 618, LP or CD).

In its last recording made before recent major personnel changes, the Sequoia String Quartet gives us a surprisingly bland interpretation of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet (Nonesuch 79105, LP only).

The characteristic Sequoia energy is replaced here by a tippy-toe tentativeness that renders much of this benignly contemplative music soporific. Whether the clarinetist, the excellent Michele Zukovsky of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is accomplice or victim is difficult to say for certain. One might guess, however, and have that guess confirmed in the little fill-up piece--the allegro fragment which is all that survives of a Mozart B-flat clarinet quintet--wherein Zukovsky's bright-toned, airborne statements consistently are countered by the thin-toned, rhythmically unincisive ripostes of the first violin.

Finally, a charming novelty: the period-instrument Salomon String Quartet, with flutist Lisa Beznosiuk and pianist Christopher Hogwood--all members of Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music--present two of Haydn's most familiar symphonies, Nos. 100, the "Military," and 104, "London," in chamber arrangements by the London impresario who commissioned the originals, the celebrated Johann Peter Salomon (London/L'Oiseau-Lyre 414 434, LP only).

It is exquisitely silly stuff, bound to delight anyone with a knowledge of the originals, notably the "Military," where the rowdy rhythmic thumpings of drums and clashings of cymbals are reduced and refined to precious salon proportions by the pipings of the flute and mellow, woody tones of the fortepiano. The performances are, not at all surprisingly, polished to witty perfection.

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