César FRANCK (1822-1890)

String Quartet in D major (1889) [44:25]

London String Quartet
rec. October 1928, Columbia Studios, London
ST LAURENT STUDIO YSL 78-033 [44:25]

It’s curious how reissues can generate, or be seen to generate, their own momentum. If you were an admirer of the London String Quartet, for example, you would know that about the only recording of theirs ever to have seen an LP transfer was the 1917 collaboration with Gervase Elwes and pianist Frederick Kiddle in their three 78 set of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. And there things rested in respect of CD reissues too until another collaborative endeavour was released on CD by Clarinet Classics; Charles Draper’s 1917 recording, much abridged, of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet. But now what do we find? In recent months, after nearly eighty or ninety years of inactivity, Pristine Audio has reissued the Schubert Quintet with Horace Britt, and now St Laurent Studio has reissued its own transfers of a slew of material.

Prominent among them is this magnificent recording of the Franck. It was a mainstay of the Columbia catalogues in Britain, Australia and the US for many years and was still admired in the 1950s and beyond, long after it had been deleted. It also happens to be the very best recording of the ‘third period’ LSQ – John Pennington, Tommy Petre, Harry Waldo Warner, and C. Warwick Evans. The first incarnation of the group was led by Albert Sammons, and the second by James Levey. Both these players had had lessons from Weist Hill, a leading British player of the time. And, incidentally the first violinist approached to lead the group wasn’t, in fact, Sammons, who had no quartet experience in 1908, but Barry Squire, who had, but who’d soon turned down the offer because of family reasons.

What makes this recording so convincing, so powerful? What makes it the equal of any recorded in the first half of the twentieth century? Firstly there’s tonal homogeneity, then there’s intensity, and then there’s an acute sense of architecture. These are some of the elements that produce a reading of sweep and vitality, of sensitivity and command. Pennington’s first violin lead is bright and penetrating, firmly focused. Petre is a sensitive, subtle and hugely accomplished second violin, almost always underestimated in any discussion of the group. First impressions that Warner is placed slightly backwardly, and is not as tonally forthcoming, are not actually true and he phrases eloquently. Evans anchors things with his usual assurance and insight; he was a major figure indeed.

There are no notes, merely a well reproduced picture of one of the disc labels, and a track-listing. The disc, given the lack of coupling, is necessarily rather short measure.

The transfers seem to have used the British Columbia pressing (Columbia L2304/09), though the US release on 6797/02D was good, the Australian pressing even better. This company avoids interventionist procedures. There is no filtering, and some of the more prominent scratches are removed one by one, they note, not via noise suppression methods. The result is very lifelike, though there is the usual ration of surface noise and there are similarities therefore with some of Pearl’s, and to a degree Opus Kura’s work. It’s a wholly different ethos to a powerfully interventionist stance adopted by, say, Pristine Audio, the company that released their version of the group’s Schubert Quintet. Therefore ears may notice the side-join at 3:52 in the first movement, and just possibly elsewhere, as well as the scrunch on the last 78 side. The pressing and the copy used is also considerably ‘clickier’ than that used for the company’s transfer of Beethoven’s Op.132 quartet. I think there is room for all sorts of approaches, and I can certainly put up with the shellac noise to hear the defined and fine frequency response presented, as well as the palpable sense of room ambience.

Jonathan Woolf

A reading of sweep and vitality, of sensitivity and command.