This is the second in St Laurent’s London String Quartet restorations. I wrote about the neglect of the LSQ in my review of the Franck Quartet recording, but optimistically noted that the corner has been turned in the last six months given that this company and Pristine Audio have made material contributions to reissuing the group’s 78 traversals. Additionally a leading American company promises to release, for the first time, live Library of Congress recordings, all of which I have heard, and they are, without exception, stunning.
The rather short-measure Franck disc has not been reprised in this 71 minute release which couples Beethoven’s Op.132 with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartets written almost contemporaneously. This company doesn’t produce notes but I infer from the sleeve photo reproductions that US Columbia pressings were utilised rather than English or Australian counterparts. That’s not surprising, given that St Laurent is a French Canadian outfit.
Though the 78 documentation proclaimed that the 1934 Beethoven recording featured violist Waldo Warner, it was actually William Primrose, in his only studio recording with the group he had joined in 1930, following the harrowing and mercifully brief stint of violist Philip Sainton, now better remembered as a composer.
The Beethoven quartet represents the final stage of the LSQ; Pennington, Petre, Primrose and Evans. It was their last recording in this configuration before disbanding the following year, 1935, though the quartet did reform in the 1940s informally and then formally for performances and recordings. An especially rare late set is a Toch quartet on Alco, though they also made a series of recordings of Stephen Foster melodies and some Christmas songs on Decca. Trivial stuff on which to end, but better than nothing.
The Beethoven is direct, unfussy, undogmatic, and leanly impressive. It has a strong sense of momentum and of the assimilation of tempo relations, to form a unified whole. Of individual members Pennington is at something like his assured best, his tone firmly focused and strongly projected. Primrose shines in the second movement Allegro, and Petre proves the adage of a quartet only being as good as its second violin by playing out finely. The folk resonances are well characterized too. In the great slow movement, which is taken fast, we find that firm and crisp accenting keeps things moving. The playing is highly sympathetic, and not cool, but surprisingly — perhaps to some — modern in ethos. It certainly differs wholly from the highly expressive plangency cultivated by, say, the Lener quartet in their 1935 recording of the work — ironically, really, since it was the Hungarian group that, because of the LSQ’s frequent world tours and American base, took over their repertoire at British Columbia.
The Schubert quartet comes from the second period LSQ, in which Warner was the violist, and the first violin was James ‘Jimmy’ Levey. This is a superb rendition, the first electric recording of the work to be committed to disc, though it had been preceded by two full-length acoustic versions. They were by the Edith Lorand quartet for German Parlophon and the very rare Leo Abkov quartet recording on the World label. This last was on three long playing sides, an amazing advance for an acoustic 1925 recording, though God knows how many copies can have been sold. The LSQ’s version is full-bodied, technically vastly accomplished, buoyant and expressive without any gauche gestures. At times there’s a quasi-orchestral quality to the unison playing, a testament to the engineers of the day who achieved it without compromising tonal reproduction. Note too Warner’s elegiac phrasing, Warner’s bass drone, and the splendidly scaled playing of the two fiddle players, among the elite of their profession at the time.
I should also add that the transfer quality of both sets, but especially the Beethoven, is significantly better than the rather over-crackly Franck. The Beethoven shellacs were that much later, but the set sounds to have been cleaner. There is a touch of blasting in the finale. You will need to turn up the volume in the Schubert slightly and there was a tricky side-join on the first side at 4:38 but once past that things are fine. The non-interventionist philosophy adopted by this label will not find sympathy from all listeners, I’m sure, but I take to these transfers, which are somewhat reminiscent of Pearl and Opus Kura.