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The Fine Arts Quartet – 30th Anniversary Album
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.3 in F Op.73  (1946) [29.00]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
String Quartet No.2 Op.92 (1942) [23.48]
The Fine Arts Quartet
Recording location and date unspecified [1979]
GASPARO GG-1024 [52.48]


Fine Arts admirers will be squinting hard at the title of this disc but they – and others – must bear in mind that this is a reissue of an LP from 1979. Even then things are not that simple. The Fine Arts gave its first performance in 1946 and the sleeve-note to that LP was written in 1976 – which made perfect sense in 1976 but the LP appeared three years later and this CD in the year of their sixtieth anniversary. It might have made more sense for Gasparo to have made this explicit rather than to sow some confusion in the minds of prospective purchasers - though I should add there’s no attempt to hide the original date of recording which is clearly spelled out on the back of the jewel case.
 
The present quartet to bear the name naturally has no relation to the original line-up. For this recording it was the settled combination of Sorkin, Loft, Zaslav and Sopkin. I reviewed the Fine Arts’s complete Beethoven quartet recordings on this site – their Everest recordings were cool and clear, avoiding extremes and equable with more sensitive musicianship involved than some have deigned to find. This anniversary disc conforms to the group’s known strengths, firm instrumental address, a lean sonority, well-matched first and second fiddles and clean textures. It also reflects some of their weaknesses – a certain astringency of tone and a rather driving, almost motoric relentlessness.
 
This applies particularly in the case of the Shostakovich. If one judges this performance against one made the following year by the Shostakovich Quartet, released later in a complete cycle in an Olympia CD box and an earlier 1968 disc by the Taneyev, now in an Aulos box of the complete quartets, one sees the Fine Arts’s traversal in firmer context. The Fine Arts are curiously one-dimensional throughout, preferring drive to finesse, though allowing a lot of detail to be heard. One of the biggest problems is the highly unsympathetic recording which is very up-front and glassy and reduces any dynamic subtleties the quartet may effect to mere theory. Consequently there’s no light and shade here and colour is in very short supply. The too-loud recording level does for the slow movement and the stern impatience of much of the playing sounds cumulatively rather unsympathetic. The Taneyev achieve an altogether different level of imaginative re-creation and the Shostakovich Quartet show that angularity can be accompanied by colour.
 
The Prokofiev is a less problematic work and receives a less problematic reading. But the steeliness and abrasive recording level still does its worst and there’s not enough colour and therefore subtle inflexion throughout all three movements. Rhythmically the quartet has sharp reflexes, those finale off beats are nicely characterised for instance, and the timbral consonance of the fiddle players is apt. But the recording manages to exaggerate the sense of over-projection incessantly.
 
This is one for admirers of the quartet – it’s not otherwise competitive.

Jonathan Woolf
 

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