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Guarneri’s Penultimate Season

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Arnold Steinhardt, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony
Thursday evening, the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music series presented the esteemed Guarneri String Quartet in the Terrace Theater. Since the Guarneri Quartet has announced their retirement at the end of the 2008-2009 season, hearing the unparalleled group one last time must be at top of every music lover’s to-do list. The three founding members of the Guarneri are showing signs of age, of course, with the exception of cellist Peter Wiley who replaced David Soyer in 2001. However, once easing into a work, such as the melancholic first movement of Bartók’s Quartet No. 2 that opened the program, bit by bit the years rolled back and the Guarneri Quartet exhibited an inspiring vitality. After almost 45 years of strenuous touring (see first violinist Arnold Steinhardt’s 1998 book Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony), these musicians convey that their love affair with music, one that likely motivated them to master their art in the first place, has not faltered, yet only increased.

In addition to flawless accuracy and ensemble, the Guarneri excels by finding perfect musical equilibrium on various levels. One is first struck by the intensity of atmosphere created and, once attuned to it, may focus more closely on the detail beneath. This was especially true in the second movement (Allegro molto capriccioso) of the Bartók, featuring lively folk tunes. The outcome of such refined playing was that except for when the cellist was in its lower range, hearing individual instruments was seldom possible; they are a unit, an organism.

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Robert Battey, Guarneri String Quartet, Revisiting a Winner (Washington Post, January 12)
Haydn’s Quartet in D (op. 20, no. 4) opened with somewhat heavy vibrato, though it was sprightly when necessary and always fluent. The Scarlatti-like set of variations comprising the second movement (Un poco adagio e affettuoso) was most memorable as it allowed individuals to take a turn at the tune -- cellist Peter Wiley was most poetic. The chorale-like theme contains a dramatic 5-6 upward-motion crescendo that the quartet, keen to exploit dissonance, savored every time. After repeating the opening theme, a fitting coda rounds out the movement. The final movement was a true Presto.

The program ended with Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E Minor (“From My Life”), a biographical work written a decade before the composer’s death. during his deafness. The first two movements emit a youthful optimism, particularly the dance tunes of the second movement. The third movement refers to Smetana’s love for the girl who would later become his wife, and it featured first violinist Arnold Steinhardt playing the florid tune with absolute abandon. At one point in the movement after lush chords, the music paused after a hopeful upward motif, possibly representing a question, or marriage proposal, that was soon followed by more lush melody. The heroic final movement (Vivace – Meno presto – Moderato) was interrupted by a violin screech depicting the ringing heard in Smetana’s ears, a symptom of the tragic deafness to come. The atmosphere became hauntingly dark, and the work more and more distant, fading quietly away and ending with three plucks.

The Guarneri Quartet will present an all-Beethoven concert as a scholarship benefit at the University of Maryland next month (February 29, 8 pm).

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