Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet in F,
Hob.III:17, op. 3/5, Serenade [13:58]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Oboe Quartet, K370 [14:30]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet, Op.81 [33:12]
Léon Goossens (oboe)
Olga Loeser-Lebert (piano)
OPUS KURA OPK2114 [67:16]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Divertimento in D major, K334 [41:19]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet, Op.20 [37:43]
Dennis Brain (horn) (Mozart)
Aubrey Brain (horn) (both)
Charles Draper (clarinet) (Beethoven)
Ernest Hinchliff (bassoon) (Beethoven)
Claude Hobday (double bass) (Beethoven)
rec. 1939 (Mozart), 1930 (Beethoven)
OPUS KURA OPK2078 [79:35]
I first got to know the Léner Quartet about fifteen years ago when I picked up a terrific 2CD set of their Brahms recordings (EMI Référence CHS566422) in a sale. I’d had no previous acquaintance with them, but it seemed too good a bargain to pass up, and it turned out to be a wise decision. Their popularity had reached a peak at the outbreak of the Second World War, and by then their records had sold a million. They held the distinction of being the first quartet to set down a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle. By the end of the war, many came to regard them as an anachronism, their wide vibrato and portamenti no longer in fashion. Now, connoisseurs are beginning to reassess the ensemble’s valuable legacy, and thanks to the sterling efforts of people like Tully Potter – he persuaded EMI to release the Brahms set I referred to – some of their recordings have been made available on CD. The Japanese label Opus Kura has released these two albums.
The quartet was founded in Budapest in 1918, its members drawn from the Budapest Opera Orchestra. Unlike some other ensembles, its personnel stayed together for two decades. All four instrumentalists - they were all more or less the same age, being born 1894-5 - were players of the highest standard. Jenö Léner, who lead them, had played in the first violin section of the Budapest Philharmonic, astonishingly, at the age of eleven. One of the secrets of their success was that they had a single vision on tone production, which involved plenty of vibrato. This conferred a warm, radiant glow on their playing. Portamenti may seem overdone sometimes, but this was the fashion of the day. 1922-1939 was the period of their greatest achievements, which started with single-movement recordings. In 1923 they set down their most substantial work to date, Mozart’s K464. On 19 February 1926 they made their first electrical recording and, for this, chose Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Their travels took them across Europe and to the States in 1929, where they made their Carnegie Hall debut. Europe proved more lucrative for them, however. They were particularly fond of the UK, where their recordings were made. The Second World War spelt the end of their original formation. Touring South America when war broke out and unable to return home, three of them decided to settle in Mexico City. Jenö Léner returned to New York and formed another quartet, which underwent several personnel changes. In 1948 he died, and the ensemble folded.
Mendelssohn’s Canzonetta from the String Quartet Op. 12, is a pleasing little opener to the ‘Nostalgia’ disc and it is here given a rhythmically buoyant rendition. Haydn’s String Quartet No.17 Serenade, now thought to be the work of Roman Hoffstetter, was recorded acoustically by the Léner in 1924. This electrical remake dates from four years later. I’ve never heard the acoustic traversal to offer a comparison, but what we have here is an absolute delight. The performance is permeated with a sunny, affable and joyful disposition. Some may take exception to the downward slides in the fourth movement Scherzando, but I consider them part and parcel of an engaging performance of lighthearted freshness. The Mozart Oboe Quartet with Leon Goossens from Abbey Road, Studios, London on 1 March 1933 is probably the most well-known recording the Léner made. It has had several incarnations on CD, and I know it from the Testament release (SBT 1130), which features Bach and Handel, conducted by Menuhin. Opus Kura's non-interventionist re-mastering is more faithful to the original 78 sound. Some have criticized Goossens for his insistent vibrato; I don’t find it a problem. In fact, he has a rich warm tone, which blends well with the other players, and a wonderful sense of line, where phrases are idiomatically shaped. This performance has never been bettered in my view. The pianist Olga Loeser-Lebert joins the players for the Dvořák Piano Quintet, Op.81. It’s a stylish performance, well paced, with drama and lyricism in good measure. The scherzo is particularly alluring, truly sparkling with vigour.
Mozart’s Divertiment in D major, K334 is the only recorded collaboration between father and son horn players Aubrey and Dennis Brain. The horns do appear somewhat recessed and are thus not well-balanced in the mix – a pity. Added to this Jenö Léner does tend to dominate, and sounds a little over-projected at times. Nevertheless, the performance is imbued with Viennese elegance and charm. It is a work suffused with lyricism, and the feeling you get is that the players are savouring it to the full. Aubrey Brain, together with Charles Draper on clarinet, Ernest Hinchliff on bassoon and Claude Hobday on double bass, join members of the quartet for a captivating performance of Beethoven’s Septet. Remarkable is their ensemble, with each player shining and having his moment in the sun. There’s a beautiful dialogue between the clarinet and violin in the Adagio, with both players luxuriating in the joy of music-making.
All the recordings here were set down in the electrical era, that is, from 1926 onwards. Opus Kura’s transfers have scrubbed up well and are warm and vibrant. Excellent booklet notes have been supplied by Tully Potter. I would certainly like to explore the Léner’s legacy further, and I hope we will be treated one day to a complete Beethoven quartet cycle; one was issued on an 8 CD set by Shinseido/EMI in Japan a while back but is virtually impossible to get hold of, as I well know.