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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 [39:20]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884 )
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, T.116 "From my Life" [29:58]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quintet in C, D.956 [44:50]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, 'American' [23:40]
Hollywood String Quartet
Kurt Reher (cello)
Victor Aller (piano)
rec. 30-31 March 1954 (Brahms), 2 November 1955 (Smetana), 15-17 January 1951 (Schubert), 23-24 January 1954 (Dvorak)
Capitol Studios Hollywood. Transfers from EMI box set RLS 765
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM 085 [67:13 + 68:31]

The four chamber works on offer here are all familiar to me from the excellent Testament survey of the Hollywood Quartet’s recordings. I have been collecting them for some time. Whereas the four works presented here are spread over two separate CDs and a three-disc set on Testament, it is advantageous to have these four more popular chamber works gathered together in a double CD package. One other factor to be considered is that Testament’s transfers are in mono, the re-masterings here are in ambient stereo.
The Hollywood Quartet was founded in 1939 by violinist Felix Slatkin and his cellist wife Eleanor. Their son is the conductor Leonard Slatkin. The Quartet hailed from the West Coast and became America’s first home grown string quartet. Its name derives from the Hollywood film studios, where the four players were leading members of the orchestras which provided the soundtracks. I would imagine that their day job did not offer them, as musicians, much in the way of satisfaction and fulfillment. This probably inspired them to form a quartet, where they could perform music of greater artistic merit. During 1949-1958 they produced an exceptionally fine legacy of recordings for Capitol Records, including lesser known chamber compositions by composers such as Villa-Lobos, Turina, Dohnanyi, Wolf and Kodaly. They disbanded in 1961, Felix Slatkin dying two years later at the young age of forty-seven.
What leaps out at me when I hear the Hollywood Quartet is the lush blend of sound and glow which emanates from their playing. The performances are marked with warmth and expressivity, underpinned with immaculate intonation and precision. The players have obviously lived and breathed these works. Their Schubert Quintet has always been one of my favorite airings, in fact it was my introduction to the Hollywoods many years ago. It is a performance I continually return to. The Brahms, likewise, is sublime and passionate. In all the works featured here tempi and dynamics are well-judged. These are performances at the pinnacle of the golden age of chamber music performance.
Andrew Rose has done a sterling job with his XR re-masterings. His desire, as stated in the booklet notes, is ‘ to play the records and then hear them in their full glory after re-mastering’. He goes on to explain that this is some of his favourite music, played by one of his favourite ensembles. His sources were records in mint condition, but he does explain that he has had to do some pitch adjustments. The transfers are now pitched to concert standard 440Hz.
Ambient stereo has added depth, dimension and space to the originals. I listened to both the Pristine Audio and Testament transfers side by side. The Schubert and Brahms, to my mind, are the most successful. In addition to depth, dimension and space, Rose’s re-masterings have more bloom and air around the performers, noticeably so. The sound appears more defined, brighter and more immediate. The Dvořák also has more spatial depth, but the difference is not as striking. The only disappointment I found was in the Smetana. Here I preferred the Testament transfer, which is brighter and more immediate. The Pristine re-mastering renders the performance more cramped, dull and dry.
Admirers of the Hollywood Quartet, like myself, will be pleased that these four masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire have been gathered together in one two-disc set. Booklet notes are minimal, but they point you to the Pristine Audio website where comprehensive programme notes can be found. The recordings are available as a CD or a download option.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Dvorak quartet ~~ Schubert quintet