GUARNERI STRING QUARTET, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah, Thursday
Now in its fifth decade of performing, the Guarneri String Quartet has during that time shown that it is among chamber music's elite.
Few do it better. Few come even close to bringing the same kind of intuition and perceptiveness to their performances. Unity of purpose and a finely honed sense of ensemble play are among the key ingredients in the Guarneri's lasting success.
After a prolonged absence of several years, the Guarneri — Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violins; Michael Tree, viola; Peter Wiley, cello — returned to Libby Gardner Concert Hall Thursday under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City. And the audience in the nearly sold-out hall witnessed one of the most superbly played and sublime concerts in recent memory.
The program opened with Mozart's transcendent Quartet in F major, K. 590. His final quartet, it aspires towards a loftier level of expression. The first three movements shimmer with a refined eloquence, while the finale contrasts dynamically with its Haydnesque spontaneity and spirit.
The Guarneri rose to the occasion, capturing the soul of the work with their subtly inflected expressions and their finely nuanced playing. It was an insightful and persuasive reading that was sheer poetry. Mozart just doesn't get any better than this.
The Mozart was paired with Leos Janacek's gripping Quartet No. 1 ("Kreutzer Sonata").
Basing his work on the short story of the same title by Leo Tolstoy, Janacek's unique musical language captures the human drama of its literary model vividly. The quartet is unquestionably one of Janacek's most forceful chamber works, enthralling in its potent imagery.
The Guarneri played the work incisively, turning it into a visceral experience that was bold and forceful. Their assertive reading, however, was also finely honed, drawing out the wonderfully crafted phrases with subtlety.
The second half was devoted to Debussy's sole venture into the quartet medium. The group gave a radiant performance of this early work that was nuanced and eloquently articulated. Their playing was seamless, bringing out the rich textures and warm harmonies.
The Guarneri played it with emotional fervor. Particularly the slow third movement was given a wonderfully heartfelt reading that captured the delicate expressiveness of the music.
It is hard to imagine that anything could follow the exquisite beauty of the Guarneri's inspired performance of the Debussy, yet they in fact did manage the impossible. After repeatedly being called back onstage, the four relented and played an encore, one of Mozart's sublime fugues, which they played with the same quiet intensity that infused their interpretation of the Debussy quartet.