Legendary recordings of Beethoven's Late Quartets by the Hollywood Quartet
With major improvements in sound quality from Pristine's new XR remasters
Hollywood String Quartet:
Felix Slatkin violin
Paul Shure violin
Alvin Dinkin viola
Eleanor Aller cello
Recorded at Capitol Studios, Hollywood
Transfers from EMI box set RLS 7707
All downloads include a complete set of scores
REVIEW of EMI reissue, 1982, excerpt
This set became something of a legend in its day and had it not been for the fact that it was made in the last days of mono LP, it would have remained longer in circulation. Of course, many other fine Sets have since appeared, principally those by the Végh and Talich Quartets, as well as the Quartetto Italiano. The present set, like the Busch, must be regarded as a complement to them rather than a substitute. It is hardly necessary to remind readers that the Hollywood Quartet flourished briefly during the early years of the mono LP but I do so in case the reissue of the Schubert C major Quintet, the Brahms F minor Quintet along with the Dvofák Op. 96 and Smetana E minor Quartets escaped your attention. The members of the quartet all belonged to various Hollywood film studio ensembles and they possessed superb attack, generally flawless intonation and beautifully blended tone; the enormous reputation they rapidly acquired once their records began circulating beyond the West Coast of America is thoroughly vindicated by these reissues. I have found it advisable not to play these discs at too high a level: the opening of Op. 127 sounded far too 'symphonic' and almost overblown, for these recordings were not made in a large studio and though the sound is good, a slightly lower level setting removes some of the glare from Felix Slatkin's tone above the stave.
On the third disc, the first five movements of Op. 130 are accommodated on the first side and the Grosse Fuge is placed before the final Allegro, so that one can complete the quartet as one wishes. The first movement is superbly played without any attempt to overstate feeling (the exposition repeat is not given). IJ found the Cavatina "rather too quick" and I am inclined to agree with him. The Grosse Fuge is stunning, The last record gives us Op. 131 and the opening fugue could perhaps have had more Innigkeit though it has marvellous tone and feeling.. Even if there are times when one feels certain passages are overdriven or larger than life, there are so many more where admiration is unqualified and one simply relishes the splendour and purity of this quartet's playing. They are human too: there is actually some less-than-perfect inton atton after the second statement of the theme in the finale of the A minor, Op. 132. These are performances of stature and deserve a warm welcome back to the catalogue. They come with fine notes from Desmond Shawe-Taylor and the surfaces are admirably smooth.
R.L., Gramophone, December 1982 (LINK)
REVIEW of original issue, 1958, excerpts
A unique opportunity of hearing the late Beethoven string quartets is afforded by the issue of three complete recordings, by the Hungarian, the Budapest and the Hollywood string quartets. It is most interesting to hear the different points of view and to try and decide which interpretation gives the greatest satisfaction. In these works lies almost every mood that music can depict. One of the problems of recording, as of broadcasting, is how to deal justly with the rugged or even rough moments that occur in much of Beethoven's music. Players and recording engineers have to decide how much the microphone will take; it is no use playing such moods as exist in the Grosse Fuge and in the last movements of the C sharp minor and A minor in a polished manner—they are full of passion and are, in places, almost wild. A "pretty" performance of Beethoven is unthinkable; neither he nor his music was ever pretty!
Grosse Fuge. Opus 133, Hollywood String Quartet
This opens with terrific energy and finely contrasted tonal strengths and the part-playing is clear and well phrased. When the turmoil subsides the meno mosso comes as a great contrasting relief, with wonderful calm. They make much of it until the Allegro 6/8 which fins off with capital rhythmic grip. They then maintain a strong feeling of tension throughout all this turbulent section and a huge climax is achieved, not only in the music, but also by the players. The following quiet section has glow and intensity—they seize the differing moods wonderfully and altogether it is a marvellous performance.
To me it has been most interesting to hear and compare these performances of the late Beethoven string quartets—having played them, listened to them and even coached them for very nearly sixty years—with enthusiasm and gratitude keener than ever. Actually to interpret them is the problem which demands a far greater penetration and understanding than is needed to surmount the technical difficulties, great as these are. But if one makes friends with these works, they never cease to reveal fresh marvels, unsuspected humour, even " leg-pulls " (the last movement of the Opus 135 for example), the shocks and surprises of the first movement of the same work.
From the untold marvels and depth of eloquence of the variations of the C sharp minor abruptly into the simple fun of the Scherzo, with its four undeveloped themes in the Trio of that scherzo, and so on ; every work has its treasures that will last longer than any human lifetime and will continue gradually to reveal themselves. And so one could continue pointing out the many rare treasures that are enshrined in the whole series of the string quartets. Beethoven was always the master, the prophet, the seer—the bringer of visions of beauty that are at least as great as those existing in any other art, and allow us to "look beyond ".
I.J., The Gramophone, May 1958, excerpts from lengthy review contrasting three issues of the Late Quartets (LINK)
Notes on the recordings:
One can only express regret at the belief of the Capitol executives in 1957 that stereo would never take off, and therefore it was not worth recording on two channels - it can only be assumed that they rarely if ever ventured into their own studios to listen to the difference. Thus this legendary set remains firmly a mono issue - though in this Pristine remastering our optional Ambient Stereo processing does as least create a sense of air and space around the players.
Of greater influence on the sound quality is the re-equalisation of XR remastering which has made huge improvements to the tone of the entire set - no longer does this need to be listened to quietly!
Hollywood String Quartet
Notes from Wikipedia
The Hollywood String Quartet (HSQ) was a string quartet founded by violinst/conductor Felix Slatkin and his wife cellist Eleanor Aller. The Hollywood String Quartet is considered to be the first American-born and trained classical music chamber group to make an international impact, mainly though its landmark recordings. These recordings have long been regarded as some of the most outstanding recorded performances of the string quartet repertoire.
The musicians of the Hollywood String Quartet were the leading players in the major movie studio orchestras producing the vibrant, lush film soundtracks during the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” In 1939, the same year as their marriage, Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller formed the HSQ.
In its original formation, Slatkin and Aller were joined by violist Paul Robyn and second violinist Joachim Chassman. However, the group disbanded soon thereafter when the three male members enlisted in WWII service. The HSQ resumed its activities in 1947, with Paul Shure replacing Chassman as second violinist. In 1955, Paul Robyn left the group and Alvin Dinkin assumed the viola chair.
In addition to their work in the Hollywood studio orchestras and recording classical repertoire, the HSQ members regularly performed as session musicians at the major record companies, including Capitol Records. At Capitol, they accompanied some of the leading pop performers of the era, most notably Frank Sinatra, for whom Felix Slatkin acted as concertmaster and occasional conductor on his now iconic Capitol recordings during the 1950s. Among these recordings was the 1956 Close to You, which featured the HSQ accompanying Sinatra in arrangements by Nelson Riddle.
The HSQ officially disbanded in 1961 as Felix Slatkin’s interest turned more to conducting. Slatkin died two years later at the age of 47.
The five musicians of the HSQ were all the progeny of Russian immigrants. All excelled musically in their youth and were formally trained at either the Juilliard School or the Curtis Institute of Music. The musicians were:
Felix Slatkin (1915-1963) Violin; Studied at Curtis with renowned violinist Efrem Zimbalist and conducting with Fritz Reiner; at age 15 was a member of the St. Louis Symphony under conductor Vladimir Golschmann; Concert Master of the 20th Century Fox Studio Orchestra(1937-1963) and the Capitol Sinatra recording sessions; conductor of the Concert Arts Orchestra and Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra.
Eleanor Aller Slatkin (1917-1995) Cello; Studied at Juilliard with Felix Salmond; First cello with the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra from 1939-1968 and with the 20th Century Fox Orchestra from 1972-1985.
Paul Shure (1921-2011) Second Violin Studied at Curtis with Joseph Akron; youngest player in the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 18 under conductor Leopold Stokowski; Assistant Concertmaster at 20th Century Fox; left the HSQ in 1958 and shortly thereafter assumed a faculty position at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music; concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 1972-1987 as well as other major west coast ensembles.
Paul Robyn (1908-1970) Viola; Studied at Juilliard with Joseph Fuchs, Samuel Gardner and Hans Letz; Violist with the Gordon String Quartet (1931-1935); Principal Violist at Warner Brothers; Left the HSQ in 1955; replaced by Alvin Dinkin.
Alvin Dinkin (1912-1970) Viola; Studied at Curtis with Louis Bailly; played in St. Louis Symphony and 20th Century Fox Orchestras with Felix Slatkin.
In addition, pianist Victor Aller(1905-1977) was featured on several HSQ recordings, including the acclaimed Brahms Piano Quintets. Aller, the brother of cellist Eleanor, studied at Juilliard under Josef Lhévinne. He had a long and distinguished career as a pianist in the film industry and manager of the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra, and as a teacher and recording artist.
The Slatkins’ elder son, conductor Leonard Slatkin, has observed that the similarities among musicians’ backgrounds and music training impacts their technique and resulting sound as an ensemble: "With the Hollywood String Quartet, you had four people who basically had the same kind of training; four people who were more or less of the same age group and who approached music in almost identical ways."
The resulting sound has been described as a “luxuriant glow." In a 1958 concert review, the New York Times wrote the HSQ produced a “luminous tone, whether in pianissimo or fortissimo...at its best as in the Schubert work, which was played with incredible tonal nuance and expert musicianship, the Hollywood Quartet would have to be listed among the world’s great chamber music ensembles.”
Violinist Paul Shure has noted, “… we made room for each other technically and soloistically-but the blend of sound was the main thing…you draw the sound by your ability; the kind of vibrato you use, the way you apply pressure to the bow…these are all very subtle techniques in string playing." Shure has also stated: “Dynamics were a very big part of our work. Our discussions were always about dynamics and a little bit about tempi, and nothing else. We played with vibrato except where there was a particular effect to be had-no dead left hands were allowed.”
Classical music commentator Tully Potter has also discussed the HSQ’s “remarkable transparency of texture…this clarity was due in part to their excellent intonation and partly through their thorough preparation…what set them above…was their ability to combine warmth, color, and intensity with intellectual rigor, firm rhythm and an intuitive grasp of a work’s architecture.” Eleanor Aller also commented: “Nothing was done without thought…it was dependent on who the composer was, and the musical content…just to play the notes is not making music.”Aller has also stated that the group practiced every day for two years before ever playing a note in public.
From 1949-1958, the HSQ recorded a series of classical albums for Capitol Records; these recordings were re-released in CD format by Testament Records during the 1990s. The HSQ repertoire included several contemporary compositions, garnering enthusiastic praise from some of the leading quartet composers of the Twentieth Century. Among Aller’s treasured possessions was a photo inscribed by composer Arnold Schoenberg: “For the Hollywood String Quartet for playing my Verklärte Nacht with such subtle beauty."
The HSQ was the first to record the String Quartet in A Minor by Sir William Walton. The composer has been quoted :“…I hope no one else ever records my Quartet again, because you captured so exactly what I had wanted…”. Walton’s music publisher from Oxford University Press also wrote to violist Paul Robyn: "I felt I would like to add…how much Dr. Walton and I enjoyed your playing of the very prominent viola part of this work. Would there not be a chance one day that you could play his Viola Concerto…?” However, close to retirement,Robyn never recorded Walton’s Viola Concerto.
Composer Paul Creston responded to their 1953 recording of his Quartet by writing to the album's producer Robert Myers: “I am tremendously pleased with the performance and reproduction of the work…would you be so kind as to convey my deepest appreciation and gratitude to the Hollywood String Quartet for their splendid execution. Reports of their fine abilities had already reached me before I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with them, and I am delighted that they were chosen to permanently preserve my composition.”
The critics were similarly impressed with the HSQ recordings. Music critic and historian Alfred Frankenstein wrote: ”This is a quartet to rank with the great international organizations in the field…it has magnificent collective tone, a superb style that overlooks no fine detail but also sweeps through the major lines of a big work with almost symphonic vigor, and a general concept of music-making that is in tradition of the ensemble. Of the Brahms Quintet in F Minor with pianist Victor Aller, Paul Affelder in High Fidelity Magazine commented: “They give the glowing Brahms score a firm yet warm and flexible reading, making their version one of the best on disks.” About the Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1 and the Borodin Quartet No. 2 in D, Francis Klein wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “…the playing is so fresh and vivid, so well integrated and so tonally rich that it is as if you are hearing these for the initial time.”
A complete classical discography is located at the end of this article. With the exception of the first record, the original recordings were produced by either Richard C. Jones or Robert E. Myers with engineering by John Palladino, Sherwood Hall III, Hugh Davies, or Carson Taylor (as noted). The CD reissues, released between 1993-1997, were remastered by Paul Bally at the Abbey Road Studios; Stewart Brown, Executive Producer.
Another highlight of the HSQ's recording legacy is the 1956 Frank Sinatra album Close to You produced by Voyle Gilmore; a series of popular songs arranged by Nelson Riddle in an impressionistic blend of popular, classical and jazz influences. Close to You was a unique project, a scaled-down approach to popular music which remains among Sinatra's most enduring albums. The project was in part the product of Frank Sinatra's close professional and personal friendship with Felix and Eleanor Slatkin.
In Sessions with Sinatra; Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording, Sinatra historian Chuck Granata observes "In Slatkin, Sinatra found a kindred spirit, as the violinist's immaculate playing paralleled what Sinatra sought to achieve with his voice; serious listeners will note many similarities comparing Sinatra’s and Slatkin’s individual approaches to musical interpretation. One hallmark of the HSQ was its long, smooth phrasing which was accomplished through controlled bowing techniques; Sinatra utilized breath control to realize the same effect. Likewise where Felix would frequently add slight upward portamento to a critical note and neatly strike an emotional chord, the singer would often inflect a note upward or downward or seamlessly glide from one key to another."
Granata observes that the concept behind Close to You was "...extremely progressive by the standard of its day." He further concludes that "from a thematic standpoint, of all the Sinatra LPs of his 'golden era,' Close to You comes closest to perfection."
The HSQ toured in the United States seven times, and visited Canada and New Zealand, but due to the musicians’ extensive studio commitments, concerts were primarily limited to the Southern California area. However, the HSQ was the first American quartet to be invited to the Edinburgh Festival during a 1957 tour that also included appearances in Stockholm, Rome and the Royal Albert Hall in London. A live recording of select Royal Albert Hall performances was issued in CD form in the 1996.”
The nascent National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) initiated the Grammy Awards in 1958, toward the end of the HSQ’s recording career. At the first Grammy ceremony, the HSQ recording of the Beethoven Quartet No. 13 was awarded the Grammy for Best Classical Performance, Chamber Music (including Chamber Orchestra). Felix Slatkin was also a Trustee of the Los Angeles Chapter of NARAS.
In 1994, the Hollywood String Quartet won the prestigious Gramophone Magazine Award in the “Historic Non-Vocal” category for the Testament Records compact disc of the Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht and Schubert Quintet in C Major.
In 1997, the Cannes Classical Award voted by an international panel of record reviewers honored the recording of the Late Beethoven Quartets and honored the Hollywood String Quartet with its Lifetime Achievement Award, accepted by Paul Shure, at the time the last surviving HSQ member.
Eleanor and Felix Slatkin’s two sons enjoy significant careers in music. Leonard Slatkin is a noted orchestra conductor and currently the music director of the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Frederick Zlotkin (who adopted the original family surname) is the first cello of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and a member of the Lyric Piano Quintet.
The HSQ has no connection with the group which calls itself “the New Hollywood String Quartet.”
Notes from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_String_Quartet
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