Quartet identity: Alchemy of the souls

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Is a string quartet’s sound greater than the sum of its parts? Tully Potter considers what goes into making a quartet distinctive

When the great Hungarian quartet leader Jenö Léner arrived in New York on his own in 1943, he naturally wanted to carry on doing what he was famous for. One violinist does not a quartet make, so he found three other players and began planning a season. But he soon discovered the truth of the saying that a string quartet is like a marriage: he had neglected to arrange a divorce from his previous quartet. 

In the inter-war years, the Léner Quartet, with its original line-up of Léner, Joseph Smilovits, Sándor Roth and Imre Hartman, had achieved an extraordinary fusion that transcended the personalities of the individual players and extended to every aspect of what the audience heard: bowing, tone, chording, vibrato, playing style. The quartet sold more than one million 78rpm discs on the Columbia label between 1923 and 1939. 

Léner’s erstwhile colleagues, who had opted to stay in Mexico City while he headed for the United States, felt they had as much right to his name as he had. On 1 August 1943 the New York Times ran an advertisement: ‘To whom it may concern. Joseph Smilovits, Sándor Roth and Imre Hartman, members of the original “Léner Quartet” organized 24 years ago, reorganized the same quartet with a new violinist in July, 1942, under the same name…’ In the end the Léner Quartet name was taken by the New York group, but neither it nor the Mexican ensemble enjoyed success. Although the Léner Quartet is forgotten now, at the time they had an enviable joint public profile – yet they could not sustain it when they were separated.

Their story dramatises the question: what gives a quartet its unique identity? Hugh Maguire, former leader of the Cremona and Allegri quartets, is in no doubt: ‘It’s the sound. With a quartet like the Amadeus, it was Norbert Brainin’s rich sound, dark and smooth and colourful. With some of the American quartets, you can identify them because they are immaculate. A lot of them have this rather shrieky, pumped-up sound. Quartets do change a lot – they get new players. The Aeolian changed completely with the change of first violinists from Sydney Humphreys to Manny Hurwitz. The Lindsays managed to stay the same: because first violinist Peter Cropper is a strong player, he managed to keep the identity.’

Violist Daniel Avshalomov of the American String Quartet says: ‘It stems from very different sources in each group. With some it has to do with one person, like Robert Mann with the Juilliard. With others, like our own group or the Tokyo, it has to do with  the work ethic and a joy in trying to do better.’ Keith Harvey, long-time cellist of the Gabrieli Quartet, offers this explanation: ‘It’s a lot of things – the sound, the style, the dedication.’ 

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