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The London String Quartet: 1917-1951 Recordings
London String Quartet
rec. Decca/London DLP 5047 16/3, 20/4, 21/5, 21/6/1945; 18/1, 7/6/1946, Los Angeles.
Sound restorations: Lani Spahr.
Complete track listing below.
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1253 [8 CDs: 61:23 + 66:27 + 75:25 + 66:52 + 68:40 + 73:00 + 63:03 + 67:55]

Experience Classicsonline

It’s a shame that my review isn’t in time for this year’s Records of the Year because without question this is an outstanding box set, fully deserving of that accolade. I write that objectively, even as I must acknowledge a potential conflict of interests given that I am thanked in the booklet notes. My help was limited to reading Tully Potter’s booklet notes pre-publication and supplying photographs and CD-r copies of some of the 78s that may have been used in this box to augment the majority of the performances, which are live recitals from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

I’ve written about the LSQ before, so you may want to look at those reviews, to flesh out some biographical detail: César Franck quartet, Beethoven’s Op.132 and Schubert, and the Schubert Quintet.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of these 1943-50 live Library of Congress recordings. They are the only examples of the London String Quartet live in concert in existence. Not only that, but they capture the group in different formations, in rare repertoire, in good sound, and in truly magnificent performances. Some critics have expressed a very slightly lukewarm attitude to the group, despite the fact that it was one of the most famous around, and despite the fact that, along with the Flonzaley, it was, in its time, the most famous group active in America. I think no one could vouchsafe a lukewarm reaction after hearing these magnificently controlled and hugely communicative, tonally vibrant readings.

These eight discs are priced as six and are intelligently distributed amongst the set. Each recital has, where possible, its own disc, which retains the original programming concept, and allows one to hear the quartet ‘on the wing’. I shall keep my comments and superlatives to a minimum, as I know that ploughing through acres of text is not always an advantage where a more succinct approach is preferable. That said, extensive comment is necessary from time to time.

The first disc begins, where the concerts are concerned, at the beginning – December 1943. The LSQ line up was John Pennington, Laurent Halleux (of the old Pro Arte Quartet), William Primrose and ever-present Warwick Evans, the man who kept the quartet going from its establishment in 1908 until the very end. Primrose only made one recording in the studio with the quartet he had joined in 1930 – Beethoven’s Op.132 - though oddly his name doesn’t appear in the personnel in that 78 album; Waldo Warner had by then retired but his name still featured. Force of habit, maybe. This first disc features Beethoven’s C major Op.59 No.3 and the Brahms B flat major Op.67. I think these are fully the equal – though very different from – the kind of performances that the Budapest Quartet was giving at the same hall at the same time. The tonal blend is splendid, the inner voices vital and alive, and the playing evokes strength and pathos at well chosen tempi.

The other work given was Debussy’s Quartet, which offers a thoroughly plausible alternative to French quartets; quicker than the Calvet, less manic than the Bouillon, more tonally alive than the timbrally retrogressive but musically fascinating Capet. It’s especially good to hear Primrose here, but all four perform beautifully, not least in the slow movement. Five years later they were recorded in Haydn’s Op.76 No.2 quartet. They had recorded Haydn in London so were no strangers to it, though never seem to have performed too many of the quartets. The C major sees Cecil Bonvalot replace Primrose. Bonvalot had been an old chamber colleague of Pennington and was an experienced musician who fitted in well. The Haydn is dashingly done, and is followed by the first of the studio recordings that appear. This was, appropriately, Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, Op.76 No.3, thus forming a good opus bond with the previous work. It was recorded for Columbia in London acoustically in December 1924, and it’s been vividly transferred. The line-up than was James Levey, Thomas Petre, Harry Waldo Warner and Warwick Evans.

Disc three starts with Schumann’s A major quartet, possibly reminding us that back in the early 20s they’d recorded, abridged, Schumann’s Piano Quintet, for Vocalion. This February 1947 performance shows Pennington as an outstanding first violin, leading with dash and sufficient warmth. Unisons are sumptuous and the pious slow movement is well realised, where we can appreciate Bonvalot’s contribution. Toch’s Quartet No.12 follows. I’m convinced that Evans must have known Toch from the cellist’s time in Hollywood film studios but, irrespective of that, this quartet was dedicated to the LSQ. They even recorded it for Alco, and I hope someone will transfer that major commercial undertaking as soon as possible. In the meantime we can hear the recital version, intensely vibrated, the drifting harmonies deftly understood; as authentic a performance as you could hope to find. Beethoven’s Op.95 quartet finishes this disc and we shouldn’t be surprised. The LSQ travelled widely and gave a series of all-Beethoven concerts over several days in many major cities. Their stance was uncompromising. This particular example of their art is dramatic, and meditative, and wholly admirable.

Talking earlier of the Flonzaley quartet may possibly remind readers that they recorded Dohnányi’s Second Quartet in 1927. Amazingly this November 1948 live LSQ performance differs from that old 78 set by seconds in each movement. The apex of the LSQ performance comes in the beautifully sustained slow finale in which they vest all their timbral shading and sense of legato. From the same concert comes an outstanding performance of Beethoven‘s Op.132. They had recorded this with Primrose, as noted, but this live version is better still, with an expressive and much more long-breathed slow movement. Bonvalot is now the violist. It’s an exemplary performance in every way.

From 27 January 1950 comes another trio of works – Schubert’s A minor D804, Bloch’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, and Ravel’s Quartet. Once more the LSQ show their reportorial versatility in this selection. Their studio Schubert recordings were invariably good, often outstanding, but again this live recording is better still, wholly committed and communicative playing. One associates Bloch with the group that replaced the LSQ as Britain’s leading quartet, the Griller. But before that younger quartet began their association with Bloch, the LSQ had performed his music and, as here, with considerable success. The Ravel was a work the old LSQ, led by Albert Sammons, had recorded bits from – snippets from selected movements. Here we have the real thing, a vivid and agile performance, full of fancy and strength, comparable once again, as with the Debussy, to the best French groups.

For their March 1951 concert – this time the line up was Pennington, Halleux, Edgardo Acosta and Evans – they chose Mozart’s K465 Quartet to start, an amiable, ably done opener. They then followed it with a work that Evans certainly knew well because he’d premiered it with the group many years before – the Biscay Quartet (No.6 in A major) of John McEwen. McEwen had dedicated works to the LSQ and to their erstwhile leader Sammons, so it’s especially good to hear this refreshing and lovely performance. McEwen had died just a few years before. They finished with the heavyweight Brahms A minor Op.51 No,2 in which string weight was increased and the work presented with great strength.

This represents the end of the Library of Congress sequence. Disc 7 starts with Franck’s Quartet, one of the LSQ calling cards. It’s about the best recording there is on 78, and this big work is marshalled with huge concentration and sympathy. It’s hard to convey how good a performance it is. It’s already been transferred on St. Laurent Studio, and the link above will take you to my review. It’s followed by Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, recorded in 1917, presumably to present an example of the group with their original first violin, Albert Sammons. The tenor is Gervase Elwes, the pianist Frederick B. Kiddle. This classic performance was for many years the only LSQ 78 to have received LP and then CD transfer. It’s also available on Opal (Pearl) and on a Cheyne set dedicated to Elwes’s recordings.

The final disc starts with a vibrant 1927 Schubert Quartettsatz and moves onto the Vocalion abridged Elgar Quartet made in 1921, two years after the work’s premiere. That premiere performance of course had included Sammons, who had moved on to be replaced by James Levey. I have at home a treasured portrait photograph signed by Sammons to his old friend and admired colleague, Levey. This performance sounds pretty well in Lani Spahr’s excellent restoration. It shows what you can do with Vocalions if you know what you’re doing. Next is the classic 1925 recording of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, followed by his arrangement of the Londonderry Air – the recording on two 78 sides, made in November 1925 three weeks after the Idylls. There’s a single movement from the abridged recording they left of Kreisler’s Quartet. They gave the public première, in Kreisler’s presence, in May 1921 and the record followed soon after, so although it’s presented only as a torso, it has historical resonance. We end with charm – the Stephen Foster ‘Melodies’ 10” album they recorded for American Decca in Los Angeles in 1946. This is a beauty, not to be spurned, with charming, spicy arrangements of imperishable songs.

As for the booklet there is a full track listing with accurate dating in all respects. Potter’s article is largely a revision of one that has already been published in a specialist magazine but it takes stock of the Library of Congress material in way that other article couldn’t. It also revises some opinions. It makes for engrossing reading. Lani Spahr has done some splendid re-mastering work. I know, having heard it, that the original source for the Debussy, for example, had a bad scratch during much of the slow movement. He has done an excellent job masking the fact.

No complaints? Well, it’s a shame that the very first photograph is mis-captioned. The man standing is not second violinist Tommy Petre, it’s actually Edwin Virgo who was one of the violinists to replace Petre during the latter’s war service.

But no other complaints really. For quartet admirers this is an indispensable set, revealing the greatest British ensemble of the first half of the twentieth century in all its assurance, dedication, technical and musical accomplishment. Was it really that good? Yes it was.

Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
CD 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Quartet No. 9 in C, Op. 59 No. 3 [29:03].
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quartet No. 3 in B flat, Op. 67 [32:21]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 4/12/1943
CD 2
Claude DEBUSSY (1860-1918)
Quartet in G, Op. 10 [24:21]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 4/12/1943
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in D, Op. 76 No.2 [17:32]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC 5/11/1943
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No.3 [24:29]
rec. on L1633/35, 15-17/12/1924, Columbia Studios, London.
CD 3
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Quartet in A, Op. 41 No.3 [28:01]
Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Quartet No. 12 in F, Op.70 [25:11]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Quartet No. 11 in F, Op. 95 [22:15]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 21/2/1947
CD 4
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Quartet No. 2 in D flat, Op. 15 [25:12]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Quartet No. 15 in A, Op. 132 [42:32]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 5/11/1948
CD 5.
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartet No. 13 in A, D. 804 [27:30]

Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923-25) [15:25]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Quartet in F [25:30]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 27/1/1950
CD 6
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quartet No. 19 in C, K. 465 "Dissonance" [26:11].
John McEWEN (1868-1948)
Quartet No. 6 in A, Biscay [16:44].
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quartet No. 2 in A, Op.51 No. 2 [29:57]
rec. Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2/3/1951
CD 7
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Quartet in D [44:50]
rec. Columbia 67697/02D, 11/1928
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge [18:08]
Gervase Elwes (tenor); Frederick B. Kiddle (piano).
rec. Columbia 7363/65, 1917
CD 8
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartet No. 12 in C, Quartettsatz D. 703 [7:55]
rec.. L1679R, 4/11/1927, Columbia. Studios, London.
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Quartet in E, Op. 83 (abridged) [11:04]
rec. . D 02026/27; 1921, Vocalion studios, London.
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Three Idylls [13:35]
rec. L1704/05 3/11/1925, Columbia studios, London.
An Irish Melody: Londonderry Air [7:53]
Col. L1716 17/11/1925, Col. London.
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Finale from Quartet in A [4:07]
rec. D 02027 1921, Vocalion studios, London.
Stephen FOSTER (1826-64)
Melodies [23:11]










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