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.

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 works.

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)