On occasion, used record bins offer the intrepid collector a bounty of riches. Over the past year, I have come across a number of recordings of both musical and sonic note, but genuine masterpieces remain the exception rather than the rule.
Imagine my surprise then when I recently discovered at a local used record store a batch of genuine reference-quality vinyl cast-offs all searching for a new home. I consider these recording - each of contemporary string quartets - great enough to deserve consideration as “must-haves” in any classical music-lover’s vinyl collection. Each excels at capturing the fundamental gestalt of the string quartet format: the composer’s artistic vision stripped to its bare essentials.
Collectively, these albums capture an important slice of perhaps the greatest string quartets written during the 20th century, and serve as a living, breathing testament to the enduring greatness of superior analog recordings. Each is great in its own way, and greater still for its deft recreation of instrumental textures, saturated tonal colors and remarkable transparency. One need not possess “golden ears” to appreciate their individual and collective artistry. That quality is res ipsa loquitor.
Of note, each of these recordings was engineered by labels not widely respected in audiophile circles for releasing great-sounding discs. That they managed to do so here suggests the possibility that the analog masters in their respective vaults may in fact deserve reconsideration by the audiophile community and perhaps warrant some much-needed remastering.
1. Bartok: The Six String Quartets (the Julliard String Quartet - Columbia/3 LPs). Many consider this the finest string quartet cycle ever recorded. After listening to side one for three or four minutes it’s hard to argue the point. Of the three recordings recommended here, the Bartok best captures the sense of air and openness that most digital recordings seem to gloss over. The sense of air and of four musicians performing in a fully-realized acoustic space is a bit unsettling, so superbly is it captured on these discs. And despite Columbia’s well-deserved reputation for producing tonally bleached and dynamically flat recordings, these sides boast some of the most intensely saturated tonal colors I have ever heard on disc. Beyond the usual audiophile clichés, these discs, each and every one, exude an organic coherence and cohesiveness that must be heard to be believed.
2. Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets Vol.1, Nos. 1-5 (the Borodin Quartet – Angel/Seraphim/3 LPs). I generally dislike the sound of Angle recordings. In my experience, most lack musical life, sound tonally flat, and are dimensionally constrained and dynamically malnourished. Angel’s recordings fare far better to my ears when licensed to Capitol who then re-master them using the RIAA equalization curve. Such is the case with this masterwork, considered by many to be amongst the finest performances of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Of the three recordings noted here, the Shostakovich (actually recorded in Russia by Melodiya who then licensed the end product to Angel) boasts the warmest sound, one underpinned by a superb rendition of the recorded space. Like the Bartok, only to a lesser degree, this set captures the air and ambiance of the recording venue like nobody’s business. The musicians - each of whom knew dear old Dmitry - play with verve, passion and astounding lyricism. Their rendition of String Quartet No. 1 brought tears to my eyes.
3. Carter: Quartets No. 2 and 3 (the Julliard String Quartet - Columbia/1 LP). This reference-caliber recording dates to 1974 and appeared roughly one year after Elliott Carter penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning String Quartet No. 3. He earned a Pulitzer in 1960 for String Quartet No. 2. As on the Bartok discs that were recorded in, I believe, 1966, this disc reveals a Julliard Quartet at the height of its/their interpretive power. Meticulously played, but always tempered with a subtle lyricism and wit, the Julliard stalwarts bring life to Carter’s densely scored dissonant masterworks. While Bartok and Shostakovich frequently embraced atonality stylistically neither truly abandoned either tonality or the occasional folksy reference, however distorted, in their music. Carter on the other hand throws tonality out the window entirely. In the hands of lesser musicians, these works could well come off as heartless exercises in sterile formalism. But in the capable hands of the Julliard, Carter’s idiosyncratic works remind us that even the most ardent “serialists” possessed soul and wit however dissonantly those values were couched.