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Union: Quarneri Quartet

Haydn: Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4
Bartok: Quartet No. 6
Debussy: Quartet

Quarneri Quartet
Arnold Steinhardt, violin
John Dalley, violin
Michael Tree, viola
David Soyer, cello


The Quarneri String Quartet concert Friday evening at the Union Theater left me of two minds. On the one hand it was a very fine program and quite beautifully played. On the other I was dissatisfied with tempi in all three works. The selection was ideal: Haydn's Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4, Bartok's Quartet No. 6 and the Debussy Quartet.

Opening with a familiar but certainly great Classical-period work lets the group establish with the audience a tenor of seriousness, creative variety, and solid musical values, aspects that would carry through to the following less-familiar piece. Although my instant impression of the group's sound was that it was less rich than I expected, the spareness of it suited the elegance of the work's opening movement. The second movement too was suave and sophisticated. In the two remaining movements, however, the tempo issue blurred the lines and even the form: intended to move right along, I found them moving too quickly, really. The effect was to hamper the finishing off of phrases and musical ideas.

The first and third movements of the Bartok, the first especially, were faster than any other performance I've heard, live or recorded. Here the sheer volume of sound and the Quarneri's tendency to play elegantly also bothered me. I expected a fuller, richer sound and a more savagely accented reading overall. The second movement, which is a march, lacked a certain insistence on rhythm that I feel is present in the score. The concluding slow movement (mesto), however, lacked nothing at all; it was full of deep love for the music of genius, simply transcendent. It's gratifying, too, to get to hear good live performances of Bartok; it has been a long wait.

The Haydn and the Bartok make a good pairing, I think, the first influencing what you will hear, the second influencing what you have heard. This suggests that it helped for there to be a good-sized interval before the Debussy, since almost everything other than the instrumentation itself contrasts with what came before. I felt the fast opening tempo stole some of the mysteriousness of the first movement, but once underway I found it easy to settle in with it. No such quibble affected the beautifully played second movement, and for the third my notes say "Lovely, lovely!" Though that's a hard act to follow, the concluding movement was certainly fine.

To my surprise, the hall was not full. Such a fine program as this was, by the longest-standing collaboration of any quartet: these same four people have played together for 33 years! But those present were unreserved in their applause, which the Quarneri richly deserved.

Isthmus, October, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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