Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Classics report: The Schneider Quartet's legendary Haydn recordings finally make it to CD

The cover of the booklet accompanying the indispensable Music and Arts CD reissue of the legendary not-quite-complete 1951-53 Haydn Society cycle of the Haydn string quartets by the Schneider Quartet

by Ken

For decades now it has been one of the gaps in the ranks of available recordings, through much of the LP era and, until now, the whole of the CD era. But this month Music and Arts has released a specially priced 15-CD set of the 54 Haydn quartets recorded by the Schneider Quartet in the early '50s, "newly remastered mostly from the original master tapes." The massive project was spearheaded by company founder Frederick J. Maroth but was pursued, becoming a memorial, following his death in November 2013.

Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), described by Tully Potter, in his customarily excellent essay for the album booklet, as "one of the more remarkable musicians of the last century." was a violinist who expanded into something of a one-man music industry." He had spent a dozen years (1932-44) as second violinist of the Budapest Quartet, the third Russian to replace the old Hungarian players. (His older brother Mischa, a cellist, had preceded him by two years. A few years later, with the coming of violist Boris Kroyt, the Russianization of the Budapest would be complete.) Schneider eventually rejoined the Budapest, and even though the second violinist is normally thought to play the least defining role in a string quartet, to be the most interchangeable element, it's fascinating how much animated and musically probing the Budapest was with Schneider than without.

In the period between his Budapest stints, Schneider undertook also sorts of chamber music initiatives and became a mainstay, first of Pablos Casals' Prades Festivals and then of the Marlboro Festival (more and more often as a conductor), and devoted more and more of his energies to performances with young performers. Around 1950 his attention turned to the great body of Haydn's string quartets, and it became known that the newly formed Haydn Society, taking advantage of the dawn of the LP era, was planning to record all of the string quartets with a Haydn formed for the purpose by Schneider, which came to include violinist Isidore Cohen (later second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet and the violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio), violist Karen Tuttle, and cellist Madeline Foley, in time replaced by Herman Busch (whose brothers included the outstanding conductor Fritz Busch and violinist Adolf Busch, the father-in-law of pianist Rudolf Serkin).

The quartet did perform all the Haydn quartets in concert, but with funds critically short was unable to record the 24 quartets of Opp. 9, 54/55, 64, and 71/74, though it turns out that Op. 64 was actually begun; the first and last movements of Op. 64, No. 1 have their first commercial release, edited from unedited master tapes from a session in October 1954. The Schneider Quartet Haydn performances remain unmatched for their combination of structural integrity with personal relish and big and bold interpretive choices.

By way of illustration, I thought we would listen to a couple of movements we've already heard, the first movement of Op. 33, No. 2, and the famous theme and variations movement of Op. 76, No. 3, and then dip into the early quartets.

FROM OP. 33, NO. 2

The gorgeous performance of the opening movement of Op. 33, No, 2, by the Janáček Quartet, which we heard first in October 2009, comes from from a 1963 Decca Haydn LP which I've described as "very likely the most beautiful string quartet record I've heard." And the performance still takes my breath away with its combination of structural integrity with rhythmic swagger and elegance, not to mention the incisiveness and sheer tonal beauty of the playing. The Schneider Quartet makes something very different of the music, conceiving it on a strikingly larger scale and sustaining it through the purposefulness of the playing.

HAYDN: String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2 (Joke):
i. Allegro moderato cantabile

Janáček Quartet (Jiří Trávníček and Adolf Sýkora, violins; Jiří Kratochvíl, viola; Karel Krafka, cello). Decca, recorded 1963

Schneider Quartet (Alexander Schneider and Isidore Cohen, violins; Karen Tuttle, viola; Madeline Foley, cello). Haydn Society/Music and Arts, recorded 1952

FROM OP. 76, NO. 3

String Quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3 (Emperor):
ii. Poco adagio cantabile

We homed in on the slow movement of Op. 76, No. 3, a set of variations on the beautiful theme that Haydn had written to serve as the Austrian national anthem, "God Save Our Emperor Franz," in a September 2010 preview post. Here the Schneider Quartet makes less surprising interpretive choices, but projects this remarkable music with easy assurance and grace.

Amadeus Quartet (Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, violins; Peter Schidlof, viola; Martin Lovett, cello). DG, recorded September 1963

Schneider Quartet (Alexander Schneider and Isidore Cohen, violins; Karen Tuttle, viola; Herman Busch, cello). Haydn Society/Music and Arts, recorded 1953

Note: We also heard a lovely performance of the complete Emperor Quartet by the Tátrai Quartet.

FROM OP. 2, NO. 3

In what became his Op. 1 and Op. 2 sets of quartets, Haydn was still inventing the string quartet medium, both learning how to manipulate the combination of instruments and experiment with form. For Op. 2 he settled on a five-movement format, with fast movements surrounding a sequence of minuet, adagio, and another minuet. What's more, Nos. 3 and 5 included parts for a pair of horns (except in the central adagios). Usually when string quartets play Op. 2, they either omit Nos. 3 and 5 or play arrangements for just strings, likely not Haydn's, as the Kodály Quartet does in its able performance. The Schneider Quartet went to the trouble of bringing in the husband-and-wife team of Weldon and Kathleen Wilber, and I thought we would enjoy the resonance and stature our ensemble brings to the Menuetto-Adagio-Menuetto sequence of Op. 2, No. 3. (Note that in the wonderful, expansive second Menuetto the horns get to do some front-line melody work.)

Cassation in E-flat (for String Quartet and Horns), Op. 2, No. 3:
ii. Menuetto
iii. Adagio
iv. Menuetto

[arranged for string quartet] Kodály Quartet (Attila Falvay and Tamás Szabó, violins; János Fejérvári, viola; György Éder, cello). Naxos, recorded June 26-29, 2000

Weldon Wilber and Kathleen Wilber, horns; Schneider Quartet (Alexander Schneider and Isidore Cohen, violins; Karen Tuttle, viola; Hermann Busch, cello. Haydn Society/Music and Arts, recorded 1953


From the sampling I've done, the audio transfers sound dependable, and the quartets are presented in correct sequence. In addition to Tully Potter's outstanding booklet essay, the extensive original liner notes have been posted online. And the set is priced at 15-CDs-for-the-price-of-8. (There's also an MP3 edition.)

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