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Art columbia 850172
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Musical Art Quartet
Complete Columbia Recordings
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in C Major, Hob. III:57 (1788)
String Quartet in D, Hob.III:63 Lark – IV. Vivace (1790)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
String Quartet No 10 in E-flat, D.87 (1813)
String Quartet No 11 in E, D.353 – Menuetto (1816)
String Quartet No 13 in A minor, D.804 Rosamunde (1824)
Hark, Hark, the Lark! D.889 (1826, arr. Conrad Held)
rec. 1927-1928
BIDDULPH 85017-2 [73]

The Musical Art Quartet was officially established in 1926 through the Guild of Musical Artists. Its formation was greatly aided by the encouragement and financial backing of people like the American soprano Alma Gluck and her husband violinist Efrem Zimbalist. It continued for another twenty-one years, disbanding in 1947. Its first violinist was Russian-born Sacha Jacobsen, immortalized in the Gershwin song ”Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha”. Arthur Francis’ lyrics are printed on the back page of the booklet. On second violin was Bernard Ocko, who dropped out of the ensemble early on for a career in teaching; he was replaced by Paul Bernard. Louis Kaufman took viola and Marie Roemaet-Rosanoff cello. There were a few changes of personnel along the way.

The Quartet soon established itself as one of the preeminent ensembles in the USA, with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky lauding the group as the greatest quartet he had ever heard. In 1927 the banker Felix Warburg purchased four Stradavarii instruments for the Quartet’s use. Although the ensemble travelled in the Mid-West, most of their performances took place in universities and in the homes of wealthy patrons. Their repertoire focused mainly on Classical and Romantic music, but they also played works by such composers as Bloch, Debussy, Kodály, Piston, Stravinsky, Honegger and Dalyrac. They also introduced works by Alfano, Cowell and Tansman, just to name a few. They began their recording career with Columbia in 1927 but, alas, their discography is meagre to say the least. Their only recording I’m familiar with is Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op. 21, where they are joined by Heifetz and pianist Jesús María Sanromá.

Haydn’s C major Quartet, Op 54 No 2’s claim to fame is that it was the first complete recording of a complete Haydn quartet. The group’s tempi are well-paced and buoyant; they certainly don’t hang around. Their meticulous matching of phrasing and vibrato is certainly something to be admired. The slow movement is thoughtful and poetic, shaped around spiritual depth and concentrated vision. The Menuetto is elegantly wrought. The finale is unusual in that a central Presto is framed by two Adagio sections. It allows for contrasts – expressive intensity set against jaunty playfulness. The Vivace finale of the Lark Quartet showcases some impressive spiccato bowing by Sascha Jacobsen.

The group set down their interpretations of two complete Schubert Quartets. The first is the String Quartet No 10 in E-flat major, D87, an early work rarely heard and rarely performed. The composer was only sixteen when he wrote it, and it shows a fair amount of maturity. The quartet was published posthumously in 1830 as Op 125 No 1. This, and the arrangement of Horch! Horch! die Lerch!, is a British Columbia recording from March 1928. The rest are US Columbia recordings. It’s a relatively uncomplicated score destined for the amateur home market. The performance reflects the music’s youthful spirit. The Scherzo comes second, preceding a serene Adagio. The finale is a perky Allegro. The Menuetto of D353 evinces some featherlight playing that truly sparkles with effervescence.

Next comes the more well-known String Quartet No 13 in A minor Rosamunde, D 804. The Musical Art Quartet deliver a haunting and melancholic reading. Throughout they savour the lyricism and potency of the music. The Andante couldn’t be bettered. Here Schubert transcribes the B-flat major Entr’acte from his recently composed incidental music for the play Rosamunde. The wistful Menuetto has an endearing lilt and in the finale the players achieve delicacy and refinement.

The last piece, again by Schubert, is a delightful arrangement by Conrad Held of Horch! Horch! die Lerch! It works very well, with the performance revealing a real affection for the music.

The transfers are superb, and they highlight the warmth, expressiveness, flawless intonation and refinement of the ensemble. The Quartet plays with infectious enthusiasm, their innate musicality and colour evident for all to hear. The booklet notes are pretty extensive for this issue, and come courtesy of Tully Potter. It’s just a pity that this release contains the Musical Art Quartet’s only recordings of quartet repertoire.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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