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Haydn Mozart Beethoven 850112
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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet in D major, Op.64 No. 5 'Lark' [17:07]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 [28:59]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E flat major, Op.74 'Harp' [29:41]
American Art Quartet
Benny Goodman (clarinet)
rec. 1951/53 (Mozart)
BIDDULPH 850112 [75:47]

Several string quartets emerged in the States at the end of the Second World War. These were the result of informal chamber music get-togethers by distinguished musical artists who earned their daily bread performing sound tracks in the Hollywood studios. Of the ensembles that formed, two of the most significant were the Hollywood String Quartet and the American Art Quartet. The latter consisted of first violinist Eudice Shapiro, a student of Efrem Zimbalist at Curtis, her husband the cellist Victor Gottlieb, who had studied with Felix Salmond at Curtis, violist Virginia Majewski and Robert Sushel as second violinist. The recordings of the former I’m very familiar with, but I must confess that the latter are a new name to me.

The American Art Quartet was established in 1943 and began giving concerts in Los Angeles. They originally called themselves the American Quartet, this became the American Art Quartet in 1946. The death of Victor Gottlieb in 1963 caused the ensemble to fold. The recordings here date from the early 1950s. The Haydn and Beethoven Quartets were released together on LP in 1953 to much critical acclaim. The Mozart Clarinet Quintet with Benny Goodman dates from two years earlier.

Haydn’s the “Lark” is probably the most popular quartet of his Op. 64 set. A nice tempo is established at the beginning of the first movement, with some crisp, incisive staccatos. Eudice Shapiro enters with the soaring theme, from where the quartet gets its name. She has a beautiful rich tone, with immaculate intonation. The effervescent rhythms are intoxicating. The adagio cantabile is radiantly played and lovingly contoured with extreme sensitivity. I was so won over by the performance of this movement that I repeated it three times; it doesn’t get much better than this. The Vivace finale is witty and fleet of foot, with a Mendelssohnian lightness. The fugato at the centre is precisely delineated.

Clarinettist Benny Goodman set down another two versions of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet after this 1951 traversal. There was a recording in the mid-fifties with the Boston Symphony String Quartet and a later one with the Budapest String Quartet. These other two versions I’ve not heard so am unable to offer any comparisons. In this recording with the American Art Quartet, the clarinet is forwardly profiled in the mix, not a bad thing when you’re listening to a tone as rich and burnished as Goodman’s. A conversational tone and warm intimacy is especially evident in the Larghetto second movement. The variations of the finale are well characterized, with variation 1 buoyant and bouncy, contrasting with variation 5 tender and introspective.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.74, “Harp” reveals some satisfying instrumental balance, transparency of textures, a panoply of colour shades and expertly negotiated mood changes. The slow introduction to the first movement is prayerful and contemplative, and the sensitive longing I experienced in the ensemble’s slow movement of the Haydn appears once again in the Adagio ma non troppo movement of this quartet. Everything seems heartfelt and sincere. The Scherzo is played like a brusque tarantella, and the finale reveals some resourceful variations on an accented theme.

The Haydn and Beethoven Quartets are remastered from an RCA Victor LP, whereas the Mozart Quintet is a Columbia. Despite the fact that the latter was recorded two years earlier, the audio quality sounds less dated, is more bright and vibrant, with a more spacious halo enveloping it. Tully Potter's accompanying notes are predictably intelligent, well-informed and supply the necessary background and context.

Stephen Greenbank

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