Guarneri Quartet offers too much season, not enough artist

by Chirstopher McMullen-Laird | 1/7/02 6:00am

Spaulding was packed Saturday night for one of the few chamber music events featured at the Hopkins Center this year, a return visit from the Guarneri String Quartet. The group, consisting of founding members Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley and Michael Tree, has been around for 38 years. Recent addition Peter Wiley rounds out the Quartet.

The program began with Haydn's "Sunrise" quartet from Opus 76 (which includes the "Emporor" and all the other Erdoedy quartets). However, the question remained throughout the first movement: Where is the sunrise?

The Quartet's sound was thick and creamy, much too sensual for Haydn; after all, they had Mendelssohn and Debussy coming and could have saved the slipping and sliding and the undulating vibrato for later.

Their bow technique didn't help either. Every single note stood out as a special treat leaving the listener swamped in sentimentalism, not demanding the least bit of curiosity. There was simply nothing to look forward to, no surprises, no excitement.

The mood lightened up with the minuet, but it was still a heavy third movement for dancers wearing lace and fluffy skirts and powdered wigs. The notes sounded like they were competing to be heard, each so belabored and inflated that it was hard to dig up the least bit of levity third movements often bring.

More often than not, one could close one's eyes and imagine sitting alone in Paddock Music Library, with the crackling of the vinyl record -- only this was in a concert hall! It was indeed a warm up, and a sluggish one at that.

After the "curtain-raiser," the four men settled in for their Mendelssohn. Steinhardt finally dared to sing, and the others brought in lively energy as well -- there was so much enthusiasm on stage, it almost distracted from the tender moments.

Wiley played with more youthful vigor, much more appropriate for this young composition than his colleagues' self-assured manner. Mendelssohn was only 18 and would have enjoyed a more questioning and yearning interpretation to his "Is it True?" quartet. But light was ahead as Guarneri finished the first movement with some flickering attacks.

With the first movement the Quartet left their metabolic tone behind and the sound opened up -- whether it was because Steinhardt retuned or whether my ears were finally cleaned out, I cannot say. Open strings and bouncy bowings were all of a sudden allowed. This change brought a distinct clarity to their sound -- it was like they got used to the hall and were done warming up (maybe they didn't get a sound-check rehearsal? Or maybe it takes them a while to get going?). Whatever the reason, the Quartet took great care of delicately layering their sound, crisping up the cut-offs and listening to each other. It was exquisite.

The third movement was treated with intrigue and curiosity, enlivening the whole exploration of sounds. The pizzicato was especially satisfying, flinging sparks of joy into the hall.

The bombastic fourth movement was welcome, with its display of anxiety, anguish and interrogation. It's the kind of music that seasoned artist handle much better than the younger ensembles. The movement includes intricacies and unexpected shifts, a puzzle that Guarneri pieced together with praiseworthy dedication; it was the fruit of many rehearsals.

The Quartet couldn't have pulled it off without cleaning up the muddy tone they had used in the Haydn. Even Steinhardt's solo was well received with all its vibrato and "expressive fingerings" -- these sensual techniques are acceptable with Mendelssohn.

The feast really started after intermission with the Debussy G minor. With a single work ahead of them, the Guarneri held nothing back. Carefully planned rhythmic and tonal quirks flowed from the stage with ease and a sense of enjoyment. Their tone, crisper and more controlled by now, was fuller and even ruddy, suiting the first movement well.

The second movement was another pizz adventure, single players taking turns bowing a phrase or two. Soon all left the plucking behind and joined for the glittering and inspired sounds so characteristic of Debussy, capturing his love of nature.

The airy, muted third movement enveloped the hall with eternal phrases, glorious ad nauseum, some marked by chords, others left to dwindle. Ambiguous shifts of key and mysterious parallel octaves waddled along. Steinhardt's eyes seemed closed half the time, sympathizing with napping members of the audience.

Both sections of the last movement were introduced in the cello line. The tres modere didn't let the audience forget how astonishingly young the piece is -- it was plenty modern for most of the listeners, and plain boring for the few children in the audience. After a while music turns into organized noise, and then you loose some listeners.

Overall, the Hanover audience was very generous, standing after the Guarneri's reluctant second curtain call.