Schoenberg: Verkärte Nacht, Op. 4
Prokofiev: String Quartet # 2 in F, Op. 92
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro
The very idea of a "Hollywood String Quartet" sounds like some sort of joke. What could the glitzy, evanescent artifice of Tinseltown possibly have to do with a string quartet, that staid, intellectual and most serious of all musical genres?
Quite a lot, actually.
Although enshrined in stately concert halls nowadays, chamber music began in far more casual circumstances. In the days before records and radio, musical friends would gather at home to read through the latest music, whether directly written for small ensemble or in an arrangement from a symphony or opera. Thus, chamber music was not a type of professional engagement, but rather was a relaxed and private pleasure, a respite from the pressures and hardships of the world.
And so it was here. The members of the Hollywood Quartet were all studio musicians who sought relief from the tedium of their daily grinds. First violinist Felix Slatkin was head of the 20th Century Fox orchestra; his wife Eleanor Aller was principal cellist at Warners; and their friends Paul Robyn and Paul Shure were principal violist at Warners and assistant concertmaster at Fox. As Robyn's wife Frances tactfully recalled: "Working at the studios was frankly not too gratifying. They began to play quartets because they missed the good music."
At first, the quartet entertained themselves and occasional civic groups. But then in 1948 they came to the attention of Hollywood-based Capitol records, which was launching a classical division. Over the next decade they gained national and then international renown through pop work (including Frank Sinatra's Close to You album), tours and recordings.
And what fabulous recordings they were! If these musicians knew one thing from their careers, it was how to sound good in a recording studio. Using only a single microphone, their balances are wonderfully natural, arising from the artistic interaction of musicians rather than from the artifice of control-room manipulation. Like the best records of the pre-tape era, you hear a genuine performance whose organic continuity is a world apart from the edited fabrications of today. And consistent with the origins of the genre, this is chamber music that suggests a relaxed gathering of caring friends, animated with the joy of discovery, rather than a paid assignment of wizened professionals.
Another essential historical function of chamber music before the communications revolution was to disseminate new music. The Hollywood Quartet followed in that proud tradition as well, embracing and recording modern music by the likes of Villa-Lobos, Piston, Walton and Creston. But they did so with utmost responsibility, extensively consulting with the composers to ensure a full understanding of the works. As a result, most of their performances boast an authenticity that enhances their value even beyond their considerable musical excellence. Before recording Verklärte Nacht, they played it for the aging and difficult Arnold Schoenberg, who was so pleased that he wrote liner notes for the LP (reproduced in the CD booklet, but, alas, not very insightful). And no other ensemble can boast a tribute from William Walton that: "I hope no one ever records my Quartet again, because you captured so exactly what I wanted" or from Paul Creston that: "I am delighted that they were chosen to permanently preserve my composition."
As Tully Potter observes in his excellent CD liner notes, the Hollywood homed in on modern works which would speak most directly to their listeners. Thus, although contemporary, all of the quartets are fundamentally sweet and post-romantic, and avoid the dissonant spikiness of other works of the era. If you tend to approach modern classical music with trepidation, you have little to fear on these CDs. The Hollywood digs into the newer pieces with phenomenal virtuosity and precision. But perhaps it is the older works, which have hardly lacked fine recordings in the past, that hold the most pleasant surprises.
Despite the far greater importance of his later 12-tone work, the early Verklärte Nacht remains Schoenberg's most popular piece. It was inspired by a Richard Dehmel poem considered scandalous in its time: on a cold moonlit night in a park, a stranger is drawn to an unloved but pregnant wife. The music is deeply atmospheric, both bittersweet and gorgeous, pushing Wagnerian tonality to the utmost limits. Often heard in a subsequent arrangement for full string orchestra (of which the most vital performance remains Mitropolous's on Columbia LP MS-6006), the original 1898 sextet version emphasizes the vigorous shift of mood, but, as played here by the Hollywood (and approved by the composer) embedded in an continuous flow of emotion.
The Quintet, like all of Schubert's work, brims with lilting, irrepressible melody. The Hollywood gives a beautifully refined and polished performance, achieving a fine middle ground between the focussed drive of Heifetz, Piatagorsky, Primrose, Rekert and Rejto (on RCA CD 7964-2 RG) and the lush deliberation of Rostropovich and the Melos Quartet (on DGG CD 415 373-2).
The Debussy and Ravel pieces rank among the most lovely chamber music ever written. Here, the Hollywood opt for a rather straight-forward approach between Slavic passion and Gallic grace. While the diffident Debussy responds well to such restraint, the Ravel never really ignites and is the sole disappointment among all the works presented here.
Curiously, although EMI has done quite well by Beecham and others in the old Capitol roster which it now controls, the present releases are on the independent Testament label, created specifically to market product licensed from EMI which the parent doesn't want to issue itself. Given some of the far less distinguished stuff in their catalog, EMI's disinterest in the Hollywood Quartet's glorious discography seems hard to believe. But with Testament's lovely sound (marred only by a hint of phase distortion in the Schubert and an overall brightness easily tamed by tone controls), it is perhaps better that these gems are presented with the tender loving care of a committed independent than by the bean-counters of the EMI conglomerate.
Copyright 1995 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.