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The Art of Quartet Playing : The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation With David Blum by David Blum (Knopf: $18.95; 235 pp.)

July 20, 1986| Henri Temianka | Temianka was the co-founder of the Paganini String Quartet in 1946 and its leader during the 20 years of its international career. He is founder and artistic director of the California Chamber Symphony Society.

The title of the book speaks for itself. It deals with every conceivable aspect of one of the most subtle, complex and difficult forms of classical music making. The subjects covered range from intonation, tuning, fingerings, ensemble, rhythm, dynamics, hints on practicing, etc., to impassioned discussions about the interpretation of the masterpieces of the string quartet literature, with all four members of the famed Guarneri Quartet participating.

A book such as this, were it the creation of a single individual, could easily emerge as a dry-as-dust treatise. What makes it come sparklingly alive is the spontaneity of the four performers, who throw themselves into the discussions with zest. They were prompted, prodded, and sometimes pursued by their longtime friend David Blum, who followed them with relentless, knowledgeable questioning from one motel or hotel to the next, virtually crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of his objective.

The four members of the Guarneri Quartet--Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violins; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello--are highly articulate and astute in their observations. David Soyer, the cellist, obliquely alludes to the tremendous emotional stress under which a string quartet functions when he says: "The mere fact of traveling, rehearsing, performing, and recording together means that we probably spend more time in each others' company than we do with our families"; to which Michael Tree adds: "Being in a quartet is almost like being in a marriage, and in some respects it's harder than a marriage."

In reading the book, one gains the distinct impression that the members of the Guarneri Quartet have been unusually successful in maintaining, after 20 years, a far more harmonious relationship than is customary in most quartets. Indeed, suicides and nervous breakdowns in string quartets are not uncommon. But this quartet seems healthier than ever.

The book contains much spirited discussion on such matters as the unfounded notion that "chamber" music should be confined to small auditoriums. Says Steinhardt: "Nobody thinks twice about going to Carnegie Hall to hear a solo violinist or a Lieder recital, where every word has to be understood; yet many would scoff at the idea of presenting a string quartet there." Michael Tree: "Let's not forget, that during the time when the bulk of this music was written, from Haydn onward, most instrumental music, whether it be quartets or symphonies, was played in halls of the same size. Certainly from the artistic point of view, the emotions expressed in the great chamber-music repertoire are sometimes enough to blow the roof off of any hall. . . . Nobody will be able to convince me that such pieces as the last quartets of Beethoven or Schubert should be looked upon as small-scale works, whether in conception, execution, or the setting in which they're to be performed."

Rehearsals are another provocative subject. Soyer quotes the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler: "The widely held view that the more rehearsals, the better, is a mistaken one." Adds Soyer: "He believed that the performance should not be robbed of an element of improvisation."

John Dalley: "Preserving a sense of spontaneity is of crucial importance to a group that has to play, as we do, many works 40 times or more within a single season. Just for our own survival . . . we have to allow a degree of improvisation into our performances."

The members of the Guarneri Quartet unanimously agree that they detest recording. Soyer: "It's a sterile situation; the setting is anti-musical. There's no audience; you're playing to a battery of microphones. The process is corrupting. You play a piece many times; the mikes aren't right, the balance isn't right, there may be mistakes. . . . And as you make takes of a movement over and over again, your perceptions begin to alter. . . . So on the finished version we may end up doing something that's glib--because it's take number ten."

John Dalley: "I think the players themselves are to blame for this attitude (musical precision), which gives the highest priority to perfection."

Michael Tree: "I don't listen to our records, but maybe they're not as clean these days as they used to be."

John Dalley responds with a corny joke: "I dust them every day."

Although the book is divided into six chapters, it is basically divided into three major segments. Chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5 deal with the philosophy and anatomy of string quartet practice and performance. Chapter 3 consists of the biographies and views of the four individual members of the quartet. The final chapter is an extremely detailed analysis and study guide of Beethoven's great quartet Opus 131, that Mount Everest of the string quartet literature, which only advanced professionals are equipped to scale.

Of the three segments, the first, Chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5, may be the most captivating to the majority of readers. The other two chapters (and, of course, the book as a whole) should be of interest not merely to string quartet players, but to every string player, amateur or professional.

The subtitle of the book is "The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation With David Blum," and indeed, it owes much to the musical insight and imagination of David Blum, himself a musician of stature.

Although the book includes much technical material, there are many lighter moments, such as the mention of Beethoven's famous remark: "Do you think I worry about your lousy fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?"

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