Quartet's legacy is as enduring as its material

Special to The Times

When you think of long-lived string quartets, names like Juilliard, Budapest, Amadeus or Guarneri immediately come to mind. But none of these groups has anything on Leipzig's Gewandhaus Quartet, which has operated continuously since 1809.

That's right, 1809 -- the year Mendelssohn was born, when Beethoven was in his prime and Schubert was a 12-year-old genius. Can you imagine all the history that has passed through the fingers of this outfit -- the world premieres, Brahms, Grieg, Saint-Saens, Busoni and Clara Schumann as guest pianists?

Needless to say, the current members aren't the originals, and not even the most diligent period performance specialist could tell you whether these players are really playing the classics the way their 19th century ancestors did. However, you can believe that this quartet, staffed by the first-desk players of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, offers a distinct point of view from the heartland of German music.

The Gewandhaus made its long-belated Los Angeles debut on the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series at the Doheny Mansion on Friday night. Though the Gewandhaus reportedly plays lots of contemporary music at home, the repertoire on this U.S. tour is mostly centuries-old.

The group opened with Haydn's terrific "Lark" quartet. This was a different Haydn style than we usually encounter -- on the slow side, with heavy string tone and bigger and bigger ritards in the slow movement, though topped off by a satisfyingly furious account of the perpetuo moto finale.

In the cases of Schumann's Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 and Mendelssohn's Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1, we were hearing the descendants of the group that gave these pieces their first performances. Here, this foursome valued a full-blooded texture over absolute precision and polish, but the weight didn't interfere with passages where the music should hurtle along, and each movement's structures were clearly set forth. A Mozart minuet and the brief, brusque second movement from Beethoven's Quartet No. 13 wrapped things up.

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