Monday, March 30, 2009

The Guarneri Quartet: Getting Started

Hard to believe this weekend will be the last concert of the season for Market Square Concerts.

Harder to believe is it's the last opportunity for Harrisburg audiences to hear one of the legendary string quartets of our time. The Guarneri Quartet will be performing at 4pm Sunday afternoon at Market Square Church in what will be one of their last performances. The end of the 2008-2009 Season marks their retirement after 45 years of playing before the public.

My previous post looked at the "life cycle" of a string quartet. This one looks at how the Guarneri Quartet itself got started. There'll be another post soon about the music on the program: Haydn's "Rider" Quartet, Dohnanyi's 2nd Quartet (from their latest recording) and Ravel's Quartet.

Incidentally, you can read Guarneri violinist Arnold Steinhardt's blog, Fiddler's Beat, at his website (just follow the link at the bottom of the home-page).

- - - - - -
Some string quartets slowly come into existence, evolving out of a bunch of friends hanging out together who started playing through stuff and then decided to branch out beyond that weekend’s reading session or wedding gig.

Other quartets are brought into being by a higher power – usually a teacher or mentor – who points at them and says “You – form a quartet and play this program.”

Careers may begin with a big bang or, more likely, take years of hard work and promotion before they start receiving recognition, a long process during which more quartets will just give up trying.

Along the way, there might be some good reviews, a competition, acceptance by a high-powered agent, maybe even a lucky break with a big-name endorsement. Maybe a quartet or two got their big Carnegie Hall debut concerts by sitting around a mid-town Manhattan soda fountain the way Hollywood starlets got movie contracts in years gone by, but I wouldn’t suggest making it part of the plan.

In 1964, three violinists in their late-20s who’d all been students together at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute for Music – Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley and Michael Tree – went to the Marlboro Music Festival. Like a roster of available participants, each musician played chamber music with different combinations of instruments and players.

Tree was interested in playing the viola and sometimes played violin, sometimes the viola, worried about the changes one needed to make physically, musically and temperamentally when switching between instruments on the same program. With his friends, he played quartets with a borrowed viola. Joined by cellist David Soyer, a few years their senior, they filled out the Mendelssohn Octet for the Budapest Quartet, one of the greatest quartets of all times, who was mentoring the festival along with the likes of pianist Rulolph Serkin and other famous musicians.

It was cellist Mischa Schneider (who’d been in the Budapest Quartet for 34 years then) who was first impressed by their interpretation. It seems these four young players came into the first rehearsal fully formed with their own interpretation, not like four players put together who would need to be taught and molded into the overall plan. It was 2nd Violinist Alexander Schneider (who even after his years in the quartet went on to mentor young string players until his death in 1998) who said they should form their own quartet.

So they did.

They took their name from the family of violin makers in Cremona, Italy, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Guarneri Family. By then, cellist David Soyer owned a cello made by Andrea Guarneri. But Michael Tree, who chose to play viola, didn’t even own a viola at the time and had to borrow instruments for the first few years.

(There’s a rumor going around that the three violinists had decided who would play viola by a coin-toss, which Tree says was absolutely not true: he was exploring playing the viola and was all too happy to become the group’s violist.)

In the next few seasons, with the endorsement by the Budapest Quartet, the newly-minted Guarneri Quartet – who also learned aspects of moderation and even temperament from their mentors which they also applied to the non-musical aspects of their relationship – performed at the Spoleto Festival, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made some recordings for RCA.

Unlike most young quartets (both in terms of the quartet’s newness, their collective youth as well as their individual experience), the Guarneri had managed to soften the rough edges usually associated with newness. They sounded like an already mature ensemble.

The producer of their recordings urged pianist Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of all time and then “pushing” 80, to listen to the Guarneri’s recording. He was more than impressed: he wanted to record with them.
So one day they got together and played through the Brahms Quintet, perhaps the most famous of all works for piano and string quartet. Rubinstein was almost 80, the quartet members ranged from 29 to 43. And yet it was a perfect match. They recorded it shortly afterward. At the end of that session, Rubinstein said he wanted to do the Schumann Quintet with them, too, so they read through that and recorded it the next day.

One could say “the rest is history.”
In addition to two recordings of the Complete Beethoven Quartets and the Mozart “Haydn” Quartets (both for RCA and for Philips), the complete Brahms String Quartets, String Quintets, plus the Piano Quartets and the Piano Quintet, the major Schubert Quartets and the String Quintet, plus the quartets of Schumann and Bartok along with the single quartets of Debussy and Ravel, there are recordings of the complete quartets of Arriaga (a Spanish composer who died before he was 20) and Leoš Janáček as well as quartets by Sibelius, Grieg and Verdi that are not often heard or recorded. You can find out more about some of their recordings available on-line here.

Their latest recording, released in February 2009 to coincide with their Farewell Tour, is SONY’s “Hungarian Album” which features three quartets including two by Ernő Dohnányi (his String Quartet No. 2 in D-flat Major, Op. 15 and String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33) plus Zoltán Kodály's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10. The Kodaly is on the program this weekend with Market Square Concerts, along with Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet and Ravel’s Quartet.

Violinist Arnold Steinhardt, incidentally, has some recordings that are made available at his website’s quartet page: these are recordings you can download from some of their LPs which have never been transferred to CD before! You can sample them or purchase them. Enjoy!

- Dr. Dick
- - - - - - -
Photo information: Top - Guarneri Quartet in 1965, the year after their founding (photo by Helen Wright).
2nd - The Guarneri Quartet in Munich in 1969 (photo by Irving Fisher)
3rd - recording with Artur Rubinstein from a 1971 recording session (photo by Dorothea von Haeften)
4th - the quartet in a cross-over pose (found at Arnold Steinhardt's website, presumably 1969 by Irving Fisher)

No comments:

Post a Comment