We may not all look like it, but chamber music enthusiasts are a hardy and tenacious species. Despite torrential rains, temperatures hovering at the freezing mark, and dire predictions of every conceivable form of precipitation, hundreds of fans trekked to Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater for a truly special event. The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild landed one of the coveted stops on the final season tour of the highly esteemed Guarneri String Quartet. The Quartet announced that after a phenomenal run of 45 years – with only one personnel change – the 2008-09 season would be their last together as a string quartet. Like most string players of such a high caliber, you'd have to pry their bows from their cold dead hands, so thankfully this does not mean total retirement from other musical endeavors for each individual player.
The line-up of this most venerated string quartet is a veritable who's who of musicians: violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, Michael Tree, viola, and Peter Wiley, cello, who in 2000 replaced the original cellist and his teacher and mentor, David Soyer. In addition to their recording and performing of nearly the entire standard string quartet repertoire as well as contemporary works, the Guarneri has been featured on television shows and DVD documentaries and has also been both subject and author of several books on string quartet playing. Let's hope that, as is often the case with retirement victory laps, this one is premature and reconsidered.
The afternoon began where the string quartet itself originated – from the fertile mind of Franz Joseph Haydn. They chose the nicknamed "Rider" quartet, the last of his Opus 74 collectively called the "Apponyi Quartets" – popularly named because of the galloping rhythmic effect in the outer movements. As the Guarneri Quartet played this work, and the others in the program, one thought back to 1964, the year they formed as a group. Of course it is impossible to compare live performances from the time LBJ was president to this frightening time, but one thing is for certain: this is not a group that is just going through the motions and resting on their considerable reputation. Although they are somewhat austere and solemn in their demeanor, their playing continues to be engaged and alive. The Haydn quartet served as a perfect catalyst to break down the doldrums of the weather and the somewhat dangerous trip to this wonderfully intimate and acoustically balanced venue.
Although far from contemporary, Zoltan Kodály's second string quartet, completed in 1918, is a still seldom performed work that perhaps adds to his reputation as Bartók lite. This two-movement quartet, infused with Hungarian folk idioms. gave cellist Wiley the spotlight for much of the work. He is masterful in his ability to alternate between a bright, piercing sound to a rich, rounded baritone that vibrates your chair.
It is a sure bet that you will put more paying behinds in the seats when you program one of the most celebrated string quartets ever written: Maurice Ravel's only work in that medium. Dedicated to Gabriel Fauré and premiered in 1904, it is hard to believe that this was written while Ravel was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. The opening movement, with its beautiful rising cello line, is arguably the most sensuous music ever written. The Guarneri quartet imbued the music with the right balance of heart, mind, and muscle – especially in the deceptively difficult pizzicato movement. The Ravel quartet, even more than others, will lay like a dead fish if you play it without an emotional involvement, and these musicians invested it with the same passion as they may have done as beginners in 1964.
A well-deserved standing ovation brought the group back for an obviously pre-arranged encore – which brings me to my sole negative comment. A beautiful Bach-like fugal opening section led to a classical style middle section that had everyone stumped and asking, "Do you know what that encore was?" I have heard many performers, even in very broken and painful English, announce their encores, so it seemed a bit haughty to not say one word during the entire concert. However, my unnamed source did discover that this little gem was the slow movement from Mozart's Quartet in F, K.168.