Guarneri String Quartet bids farewell with Beethoven

By Lawrence A. Johnson

In 1964, Jack Ruby was convicted of killing Lee Harvey Oswald, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa, and the Beatles were introduced to American audiences on The Ed Sullivan Show.

That year also saw the debut of a young string quartet, formed at the suggestion of violinist Alexander Schneider. For the past forty-five years, the Guarneri String Quartet has enjoyed a prominent career on the world’s leading concert stages with a rich legacy of acclaimed recordings. It’s a particularly noteworthy achievement, considering three of the founding members, violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, and violist Michael Tree, are still active in the group. (Cellist Peter Wiley replaced David Soyer in 2001.)

After nearly a half-century, the Guarneri String Quartet has reached a coda, and this is the ensemble’s last season. On its final tour, the group played its farewell South Florida program Monday night at Gusman Concert Hall, an event presented by Friends of Chamber Music.

Such cohesion and longevity for a chamber group are remarkable, especially in a closely interactive genre that sees much personnel turnover, as chamber musicians tend to get on each others’ nerves. Still, in their final local program of two late Beethoven quartets, it would be idle to pretend that the passing decades were not palpable, particularly in the opening Quartet in E-flat major, Op.127.

Music of Beethoven was a touchstone for the Guarneri, with the group twice recording the composer’s complete quartets. Yet the kind of knife-edged tension and explosiveness that define today’s top Beethoven ensembles—like the Takacs and Emerson String Quartets—were in little evidence Monday night. Steinhardt’s tone is a slender, at times, wizened thread, and while his articulation and passagework remain admirable, the veteran violinist’s tone was often sharp and bowing stiff and underpowered. Violist Tree had some patchy moments as well, while the playing of Dalley and the younger Wiley remain more consistent.

  Even accounting for the march of time, this was pretty scratchy and rough-hewn Beethoven with an interpretive profile more settled and comfortable than intense or dramatic.  The performance was most communicative in the extended Adagio, with Steinhardt and colleagues’ unfolding of the introspective variations having a patient spiritual serenity that was most compelling.

Beethoven’s final work in the genre, the Quartet in A minor, Op.132, proved more successful. The Guarneri members brought a bit more incisiveness to the outer movements, though tempos still tended toward the stately rather than dynamic side.

Yet the performance of the central Adagio made up for the technical fallibility and lack of intensity. Written by the composer in gratitude to God after recovering from a serious illness, the music breathes a glowing sublimity striking even by Beethoven’s standard. The Guarneri’s performance of this spare, somber meditation had an otherworldly solace and natural eloquence that were extraordinarily moving and apt for this valedictory occasion.

An encore of the slow movement from an early Mozart quartet (K. 168) provided a dignified farewell from a group whose recorded legacy will endure for many years to come.

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Tue Mar 31, 2009
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