BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in f, op. 35. SMETANA: String Quartet No.
1 in e, "From
My Life." SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C, D. 956. DVORÁK: String
Quartet No. 12 in F, op. 96, "American."
Victor Aller (piano); Kurt Reher (cello); Hollywood String Quartet.
Pristine Audio PACM 085 TT: 135:41.
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Masterpieces stunningly played. In the Fifties, you could have made a good
argument for the Hollywood String Quartet as the best American ensemble
of its kind, the closest thing we had to the Quartetto Italiano. It consisted
of the first desks of the major studio orchestras, and the studios could
afford to hire the best. Felix Slatkin (first violin, concertmaster at
20th-Century Fox), Paul Shure (2nd violin, assistant concertmaster at Fox),
Paul Robyn (viola, Fox), Alvin Dinkin (viola, Robyn's replacement, Fox),
and Eleanor Aller (cellist, Warner's) comprise the group on this recording.
Aller, Slatkin's wife, was so admired that Erich Korngold used to look
for excuses for cello solos in his film scores, just to hear her play them.
Of the added musicians, Victor Aller, brother of Eleanor, a well-respected
concert pianist and teacher, also worked at Warner's. One of his weirder
assignments -- you see his "disembodied" hand onscreen as The
Beast with Five Fingers. Kurt Reher was the principal cellist at Fox.
For me, the quartet's principal virtues -- a consistent tone among the
players without obliterating individual contributions, electrifying rhythm,
near-perfect intonation, absolute control over crescendo and diminuendo,
and the ability to make clear the architecture of a piece while they played
-- all served clarity of both texture and structure. This program shows
them off in one masterpiece after another.
The Sturm und Drang in Brahms's first movement tempts many groups to overplay,
to coarsen tone, and to run out of dynamic room. After all, you can play
an acoustic instrument only so loud. If already at topmost volume, you
can't get any louder -- out of luck if the music calls for more. Some may
miss "weight" in the first movement. For me the gain in elucidating
Brahms's counterpoint more than makes up. I hear subsidiary lines in this
performance that I've not heard before. The Quintet becomes a lighter,
leaner piece. The slow second movement features the pianist, Victor Aller,
who offers a revelation in rhythm, touch, and phrasing. He de-emphasizes
the downbeat, very much like a jazz soloist (Johnny Hodges comes to mind).
This doesn't harm the group's ensemble -- they support him tremendously
well and also blur the downbeat, although everyone knows the exact pulse.
This gives a floating quality to the rhythm. The scherzo may disappoint
those who want something more rip-snortin' and supernatural at the outset.
The Hollywood trades in ghouls and goblins for inner Angst. Again, they
keep a lid on the dynamics, mostly so they can reach the true climax of
the piece. Obviously, they put a lot of forethought into the work's structure.
The slow, contrapuntal introduction to the finale becomes a highlight of
the entire performance, with superb ensemble playing, almost telepathic.
Indeed, I've never heard better than this, even from the Quartetto Italiano.
Beyond that, however, the Hollywood gives us the excitement and the complexity
of this movement (themes in staggered entries, both normal and upside-down).
I love the Smetana String Quartet No. 1 but somehow never get around to
listening to it as often as I want. At one point, the quartet languished
in obscurity to the extent that the conductor George Szell transcribed
it for full string orchestra, just to give audiences a chance to hear it,
at least in some form. Smetana wrote it in the years after he went deaf
as a musical biography. However, it has no specific program. It uses classical
forms. The first movement, according to the composer, represents his ardent,
revolutionary youth. The second movement, a stylized polka, depicts the
happiness of his youth. You can see where Dvorák got his basic idiom.
Indeed, it sounds like Dvorák, although of course Smetana got there
first. The slow third movement represents love. The fourth movement begins
as a jolly Czech dance until roughly three minutes from the end. Catastrophe
strikes as the violin holds a piercing high E for several measures, symbolizing
the constant tinnitus that signaled the onset of his deafness. The music,
as you can well imagine, takes an abrupt emotional turn. From the catastrophe,
it moves to a prayer-like passage and ends on an emotional near-dead zone,
at any rate a long way from either triumph or acceptance.
The Schubert C-major Quintet may very well be my favorite piece of chamber
music -- either that or Mendelssohn's miraculous Octet. I once spent several
months analyzing it, looking for a shortcut to genius. What can I say?
I was young. At any rate, I've heard a fair number of recordings and have
yet to find one that lived up to all my expectations. The ad hoc convocations
of star performers have particularly disappointed me. I'd guess that they
don't play together enough or, for that matter, work on this particular
piece all that often. At least the second cellist the work requires gets
the easiest part and at any rate means that only one player needs to be
integrated into the ensemble.
As I say, while I've heard a number of excellent recordings, something
always either seems to elude superb players or something wonderful happens
in the midst of a so-so performance. For example, the Budapest String Quartet
with Casals often clunks along, but in the first movement, they make magic,
while the Amadeus with William Pleeth has a warmth of sound which sometimes
gets in the way of the ensemble and architectural shape. Overall, the Hollywood
recording stands among the best. The sound is clear rather than lush, with
a certain restriction of color. However, from the opening chords — each
on a swell and fade — you get the sense that you're in good hands.
Schumann praised the composer for his "heavenly lengths." The
Hollywood may be short on the lengths part, but their play is indeed heavenly.
Their musical line seems to breathe, thus turning the work into something
alive. They articulate clearly the structure of the first movement, but
they more importantly catch the kaleidoscopic shifts of mood. The second
movement, characterized by very long phrases with very few notes, becomes
bogged down and static in many recordings. The Hollywood's musical line
never flags. They are intense. The scherzo is just a hair too slow for
me, but the sense of power and dramatic contrast without forcing tone more
than compensates. The finale can sound lumpish and commonplace. Here, the
players put us in the middle of a gypsy wedding (not that anyone has ever
invited me to one). I'd say the disc is worth buying just for the Schubert.
The program closes out with Dvorák's popular "American" String
Quartet, one of the scores he composed while serving as head of New York's
National Conservatory. He composed it in 1893 during his academic vacation
in Spillville, Iowa, the site of a large Czech community. Dvorák
loved it there. He could speak his native language and be understood, and
the place reminded him of rural Bohemia. Since he wrote it just after the "New
World" Symphony, many have seen African-American influences in the
music. To me, it sings pure Czech. The Hollywood here slips a couple of
notches, both in ensemble precision and in tonal beauty. At times, they
sound merely ordinary. Slatkin has pitch problems in the first movement.
Fortissimos come with "beards" on the sound. The slow movement
just lies there, and time goes by. The scherzo and finale, which should
sparkle, seem clumsy. It doesn't seem like the group of the three previous
I never heard the original discs, so I can't compare this incarnation.
I can say that it's some of the best mono sound you'll probably ever hear.
The sound is both clear and within a palpable ambience, as opposed to the
flattening you get in the usual mono recording. Pristine allows you to
hear subtle shadings in each instrumentalist's play.
S.G.S. (February 2015)