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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String quartet in D Major Op. 71 No. 2 [14:50]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String quartet No. 3 in B flat Major Op. 67 [32:53]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
String quartet No. 3 Op. 19 [20:41]
LaSalle Quartet (Walter Levin (violin I); Henry W Meyer (violin II); Peter Kamnitzer (viola); Jack Kirstein (cello))
rec. 14 December 1968 (Haydn); 11 June 1977 (Brahms); 24 March 1965 (Zemlinsky) Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden

Founded in 1946, the LaSalle Quartet became famous for their recordings of the Second Viennese School, and the European Modernists who sprang forth from that tradition. The niche they carved out for themselves was due to the proclivities of Walter Levin, the lead violinist. He was born in Berlin, but emigrated to Palestine with his mother at the age of twelve. There he came under the formative influence of Peter Gradenwitz (1910-2001), an authority on Arnold Schoenberg. He got to know the Schoenberg string quartets, and then progressed to Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky who was Schoenberg’s teacher.

The Quartet established a reputation for intellectually stimulating performances. Their musical inclinations led them to commission and premiere works from young composers. They also championed many newcomers and 'neglecteds' including Apostel, Ligeti, Lutosławski, Nono and Cage. For their recording company, Deutsche Grammophon, they amassed an impressive and distinguished discography. DG's famous "Second Viennese School" set with the LaSalle was reissued by Brilliant Classics in 2009 (review). The quartet disbanded in 1988.

Yet, their repertoire wasn’t solely confined to late nineteenth and twentieth century music. They also embraced the Classical and Romantic repertoire. It is pleasing to have this release from Hänssler Classic of three studio recordings made between 1965 and 1977, showcasing composers from those three distinct eras.

The Haydn Quartet in D Major Op. 71 No. 2 is a delight. The opening adagio is warmly expressive and gently eases into a buoyant and extrovert allegro. The dialogue between the instruments is indicative of four players of one accord, performing with a sense of shared purpose. The second movement is lyrically expressive and fervent. The menuet is rhythmically vital. The finale has an effortless simplicity, full of glee and humour, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

The Brahms is imbued with freshness and spontaneity. Of the composer’s three string quartets, this one has the sunniest disposition, and the LaSalle’s performance certainly smiles and has that infectious charm so vital to this work. The players have a firm grip on the quartet’s structure, and each instrument highlights the many individual hues by which Brahms colours the score. The recording we have here was made a year before the LaSalle’s DG recording, which was taped in the Beethovensaal, Hanover in May 1978. Both performances are interpretively identical, with the DG recording in slightly smoother sound.

Seventeen years separates the LaSalle Quartets DG recording (1982) and the 1965 airing of the Zemlinsky we have here. It’s quite evident when listening to their playing of this work that they are firmly ensconced in their comfort zone. Their playing on both recordings is idiomatic and displays an intuitive grasp of the complex narrative of the music. There isn’t much difference between the two performances, and sound quality isn’t an issue either. The DG Zemlinsky cycle was reissued by Brilliant Classics in 2010 (review).

Full marks to Hänssler for this feast of top-drawer quartet playing. Sound quality throughout is notable for its depth and spatial perspective. Informative booklet notes in German and English complement this highly desirable release.
Stephen Greenbank
Another review ...

The LaSalle Quartet or, to be precise, its first violin, Berlin-born Walter Levin took an unyielding approach to tone production and performance. Linearity and streamlined corporate sound certainly make themselves felt in this disc which catches them in three separate performances, all recorded in the Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden.

Haydn's Op.71 No.2 quartet, programmed first in this disc, was taped in 1968 and is notable for its extremely fast first movement. If one listens to their contemporaries we find that the Griller Quartet, recorded in 1959, offer the most richly expressive gesturing, and the most detailed whilst the Amadeus in their 1977-78 Haydn traversals offers the plushest tone. In this context the LaSalle's short-breathed and lightly articulated dynamism sounds strikingly alien. In some respects this aesthetic aligns them more closely with performers of original instruments, though one wouldn't want to push the point too far, as matters of bowing and vibrato, amongst others, remain very different. I find that they consistently under-characterise the music of this period.

Though they specialised, from 1946 until disbandment, in the music of late-nineteenth and the twentieth centuries they maintained a consistent approach to their repertoire. If your ideal in Brahms is the Busch Quartet you will find the LaSalle's corporate tone almost eerily light in the Op. 67 quartet. Their approach to the third movement Allegretto almost studiously downplays its agitato marking. Try a comparative listen to the 1949 Busch Quartet, who respond powerfully to its uneasy undertow. Then, too, the LaSalle take the finale on the fastish side.

Their very personal approach was always going to seem idiosyncratic after the more rich-toned Busch or Budapest Quartets, or any number of quartets from the same vintage. But with Zemlinsky they are on sure stylistic footing. Their cycle is to be found on Brilliant 91882 coupled with Apostel's Quartet No.1 Op.7. The playing here of the Third Quartet comes from March 1965, and is therefore the earliest of the three quartets to be recorded in Baden-Baden. It's also by some way the most convincing, notwithstanding its very fast tempo. They are nearly five minutes faster than the recent Brodsky Quartet recording on Chandos, and are significantly faster than the Kocian, the Escher (vol. 1 vol. 2) and indeed all other contemporary groups that I've heard, even the Artis on Nimbus (review review). Yet they are able to sustain and project perfectly at their chosen speed - a bristling 20:40 - and attend to the terseness and the darkness of the work, as well as the tense fun of the Burleske finale, with considerable command. It's the rapid-cut conjunctions that work so well, adducing layers of instability to a musical argument already strongly thus laden.

There are good notes, and the engineering is first class. If you know the LaSalle's musico-aesthetic approach, you will know precisely what to expect.

Jonathan Woolf







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