Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What I am Listening to Today: Hollywood String Quartet

Chamber music does not get much better than this; one of the most remarkable recordings of some of the most incredible chamber works ever written.

The Hollywood String quartet, founded by Felix Slatkin (1st violin) and his wife Eleanor Aller (cello) (parents of conductor Leonard Slatkin) was active from 1939 to 1961, winning awards and achieving celebrity status akin to some of Hollywood's other denizens. Frank Sinatra was a fan and had them collaborate on his Close to You album.

But their forte was the classical quartet, especially Beethoven and Schubert. The Schubert String Quintet D.956 (1828) is an undisputed masterpiece and was one of Schubert's last works. The work, oddly scored with "extra" cello instead of viola, is bold, lyrical and almost symphonic in scope The Hollywoods' performance is sensitive yet powerful. Relish the perfection in ensemble, intonation, and attention to detail. The gutsy, folksy and animated opening of the bouncy scherzo is sheer perfection, not harsh as the other performance in my collection by the Cleveland Quartet. The long, sweet adagio receives a most sublime performance here, never cloying or sentimental.

I could go on, but this wonderful work and performance has to be heard to be appreciated.

On the surface, it seems strange to pair Schubert with the "modern" Arnold Schoenberg. But Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is not one his acerbic 12 tone pieces, but a lush, almost hyper-romantic tone poem for string sextet. Again the Hollywood Quartet negotiates this tricky and thickly scored piece with such aplomb that I felt I truly heard it for the first time. Schoenberg himself was so taken by the performance that he wrote the liner notes for the recording's first appearance on Angel records in the 1950's.

Testament Records are easily available in the US but frightfully expensive. I got mine from the wonderful folks at MDT in Darby, UK for less than $14 with shipping. Archiv has it on sale for $17 and Amazon wants an outrageous $26. Shop around.. but hear this disc if you love chamber music at all.

No comments: