The LaSalle String Quartet has long been one of the most respected chamber music ensembles of the day. The group was founded in 1949 by four students at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Its name was taken neither from the pre-World War II, second-line Cadillac automobile nor directly from the French explorer, but rather from the short and not very elegant street just down Claremont Avenue from the old Juilliard building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The LaSalle has been quartet-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music since 1953, and has toured extensively in the United States and Europe. Three of its present members, including violinists Walter Levin and Henry Meyer and violist Peter Kamnitzer, all founders of the group, were born in Germany in the early 1930s; cellist Lee Fiser, who joined in 1975, was born in Oregon in 1947. The predominantly European origin of its members, another example of Hitler’s unintended musical gifts to the United States, has combined with the numerous recordings made by the quartet for Deutsche Grammophon to create the image of a European quartet providentially living and teaching in a foreign, albeit hospitable, country.

To its credit, the LaSalle, like the indubitably American Juilliard Quartet—but unlike such stars of the chamber music world as the Amadeus Quartet in England, the Quartetto Italiano in Italy, and the Cleveland Quartet here—has never been content in its recordings to mine the known riches of the nineteenth-century repertory. Though the LaSalle has successfully recorded the late Beethoven quartets, in addition to Schubert and Brahms, it is best known for its discs of twentieth-century works going well beyond the standard Debussy and Ravel masterpieces. Its members have made a specialty of the music of the Second Viennese School—Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern. And they have expanded the definition of that movement to include the four quartets (1896, 1913-14, 1924, and 1936) of Schoenberg’s only regular teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), and the quartets (1935 and 1956) of Schoenberg’s student Hans Erich Apostel (1901-72).[1] Even more adventuresome, though perhaps less rewarding, have been the LaSalle’s recordings of quartets by such certified avant-gardists as the American John Cage, and the Hungarian György Ligeti.

Sad to say, the LaSalle Quartet seems not to have a very large following in New York City. It has not been a regular visitor to either the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and its concerts have not been frequently broadcast on the local radio stations which cater to serious music listeners. So it was both a welcome and a surprising treat to be able to hear the LaSalle in the middle of February as a special offering of the “Chamber Music at the Y” series at the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA.

The LaSalle program, though short, was interesting and worthwhile. It began with an “Introduction and Fugue” in E-flat major, bearing the combined authorship of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This curiosity, probably performed for the first time in New York at this concert, consists of an introduction written by Mozart followed by his own transcription of the four-voice E-flat major Fugue from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The Mozart/Bach-Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 3 (1923) of the great pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951). After the intermission, the concert resumed with two more Mozart/Bach-Mozart Introductions and Fugues, the fugues this time being in E major and D major, again from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Then came a fascinating Rondo (1906) by Webern. Like the Mozart/Bach-Mozart pieces, it has been newly discovered. The concert concluded with the monumental, and monumentally demanding, Beethoven Grosse Fuge, opus 133.

The opening Mozart/Bach-Mozart Introduction and Fugue sounded more dutifully than enthusiastically played. The La-Salle’s tone is not usually large, though on occasion they can play out in a fully satisfying way. In the Introduction to the E-flat major Fugue, Mozart seems almost to have been cowed by the contrapuntal force of the Bach work which shortly follows; the result is an uneasy compromise between Mozart’s own melodic style and his desire to support that style with some counterpoint. After this kind of introduction, the actual Bach fugue, in Mozart’s string transcription, seemed drained of rhythmic vitality, an outcome surely helped along by the LaSalle’s somewhat shapeless execution. And yet one could only be grateful for this opportunity to hear one supremely great composer accommodate himself to the work of another immortal master. For an audience that doesn’t mind being given a lesson in solid musical values—and the LaSalle’s listeners clearly constitute such an audience—the experience could only have been enlightening.

The evening’s real business started with the almost completely unknown Schnabel quartet.

The evening’s real business started with the almost completely unknown Schnabel quartet. Indeed, so buried is Schnabel’s music in general, notwithstanding his fame as a pianist, that the long and adulatory article about him in The New Grove by William Glock has almost nothing to say about his music. It does not even list his compositions. The Quartet No. 3, a long, dense, forty-minute work (in one movement), is an example of Schnabel’s affection for the serial harmonic procedures and the characteristic emotional atmosphere of Schoenberg. Throughout, the quartet alternates passages of strident dissonance with moments of almost overpowering—and harmonically conventional—melodic sweetness. As moving as these melodic moments are, however, their juxtaposition with so much dissonance suggests that Schnabel had not yet found a consistent style—that is, a style in which an integrated harmonic vocabulary allows (as Schoenberg had shown even in his First String Quartet of 1904-05) each vertical and horizontal combination to be in some sense different, and yet at the same time the recognizable product of the same pen.

Despite the weaknesses of the Schnabel work—which were hardly mitigated in the LaSalle’s strained and uncomfortable performance—it is clearly the writing of a major compositional talent. Inadvertently, it also suggests the major loss that has been suffered by the musical life of the past half century through the separation of music performance from composition. Even Schnabel seems to have had no interest in writing music for himself to perform.[2] And with today’s performers the phenomenon is complete. Our greatest instrumentalists and conductors, with hardly an exception, no longer compose. Even more important, the best young performers today are not even trained to compose. Thus, they are deprived of inside knowledge of how music is made, and composition itself is deprived of the work of the most gifted musicians to come out of our music schools.

I am a bit chagrined to say that after the interest of the Schnabel quartet, the two Mozart/Bach-Mozart Introductions and Fugues which came after the intermission seemed even less beguiling than had the Introduction and Fugue at the beginning of the program. But matters picked up quickly with the Webern Rondo, an early work similar in its chromatic harmonic palette to the yearning and sensual Berg Piano Sonata (1908) written two years later. Like the Berg, the Webern Rondo was written while its composer was a student in Schoenberg’s class. The autograph score was not found until 1965, and it has now been published by Carl Fischer in New York. The Rondo is an extraordinary work, reasonably long (for Webern) and full of melodic and harmonic genius. What the Rondo lacks in the driving force of Schoenberg’s early quartet writing, or in the rotten-ripe atmosphere of early Berg, it fully makes up for in the lightness and sustained sweetness of its texture. It must be said, too, that the Rondo called forth from the LaSalle quite their best playing of the evening, playing that was rich, confident, and altogether masterly.

It is tempting to judge the LaSalle’s performance of the Beethoven Grosse Fugue, the closing work of the evening, in terms of past recorded performances, among them the superlative performance by the Hollywood String Quartet in the 1950s. But concerts are not horse races, and the artistic outcome of the whole is not always determined by the perfection of the parts. The Grosse Fugue is perhaps the most demanding classical work written for string quartet, and in the concert it came after the long Schnabel and the short Webern, two works almost as demanding. While some of the LaSalle playing in the Beethoven was labored, so has been every live performance of the piece I have ever heard. What counted was. the splendid seriousness of the LaSalle approach to this great music, and the fact that in concluding their playing with so difficult a work the LaSalle managed to give an entire concert of the highest intellectual and musical interest without making one concession to the audience. Clearly, there was a serious audience present at the 92nd Street Y to hear this concert, and it owed a debt of gratitude to the LaSalle Quartet. We were all the better for their musicianship, their initiative, and their courage. May they return soon.

It will probably not have escaped the diligent reader’s attention that there is in fact one distinguished performer today who does compose at a level of ambition consistent with the celebrity of his performing career. This rare bird is, of course, Pierre Boulez (born 1925), the distinguished French composer and conductor who is by all odds the most important creative musician his country has produced since Poulenc and Messiaen. Boulez has recently been making a performing tour of the United States, his first since his departure from the New York Philharmonic in 1977. He has been conducting American orchestras as well as the Ensemble InterContemporain, his group from IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the new music component of the Beaubourg project in Paris.

Boulez and his ensemble came into New York at the beginning of March to the accompaniment of much printed material—and even giant cloth banners at Lincoln Center—emblazoned “Boulez is Back!” The schedule of Bouiez and Boulez-associated events included three concerts of the Ensemble InterContemporain conductd by Boulez; one set of Philharmonic subscription concerts conducted by Zubin Mehta and containing Boulez’s important work Rituel (in addition to works of Mozart); another set of Philharmonic concerts conducted by Boulez and containing works by Stravinsky and Debussy in addition to his own Improvisations sur Mallarmé I, II, & III; a concert performed by ensembles from the Philharmonic, with the Suite from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat conducted by Boulez; and finally a public conversation with Boulez at Symphony Space, an old movie theater on upper Broadway now used for avant-garde and “innovative” musical presentations.

This flurry of activity seemed altogether a belated making of amends to Boulez, whose six-year tenure with the Philharmonic has increasingly bulked larger—and better—in the memories of New York music-lovers. Just what went wrong during Boulez’s leadership of the Philharmonic remains slightly unclear even now. At the time there was a widespread impression that the orchestra’s subscriptions weren’t selling; certainly there was vastly less interest in the records made by the orchestra with Boulez than there had been in those made by his predecessor, Leonard Bernstein. The audience which did find its way to the concerts—and it must be remembered that much of the time Boulez was at the Philharmonic he conducted in Philharmonic Hall, the earlier and even more acoustically unsatisfactory state of what is now called Fisher Hall—seemed unsympathetic to Boulez’s readings of familiar repertory and to his choice of difficult new music. Though he did conduct the music of quite a few Americans, Boulez seemed deeply out of touch with the earlier nativist music which to this day marks America’s proudest achievement in composition. Perhaps as a result of all these factors, Boulez evidently didn’t want to spend very much time in New York when he wasn’t actually performing. And one unhappy outcome seems even more important than all the foregoing: Boulez the composer at no time seemed to make a favorable impression on the orchestra, the audience, or on New York critical opinion.

There were, however, positive features of Boulez’s activity at the Philharmonic.

There were, however, positive features of Boulez’s activity at the Philharmonic. The New York audience received a conspectus of the most important new music being written, as well as of some parts of the nineteenth-century repertory usually ignored by celebrity music directors. The audience itself began to change; it came to include some younger elements, perhaps more willing than their elders to have artistic risks taken on their behalf. As for the orchestra, despite the coarsening of tone attendant on playing so much new music, so much unfamiliar old music, and so much familiar old music in unfamiliar conceptions, the Philharmonic learned new standards of playing together and in tune. Above all, unlike the situation today after eight seasons of Mehta, there was no doubt while Boulez was running the Philharmonic that someone was musically and intellectually in charge, and that what went on in Philharmonic concerts was worthy of respect and honor even when it seemed uninviting and, on occasion, actually ugly.

It was most assuredly the positive, not the negative, features of Boulez’s achievement which seemed uppermost as the capacity audience assembled at the Columbia University gymnasium on the evening of March 5 to hear the first Boulez event, a concert by the Ensemble InterContemporain. The idea of seeing Boulez conduct seemed like a throwback to the past. The crowd on hand was an uneasy mixture of music-business notables, avant-garde composers and artists and their groupies, and just plain music lovers come to have their ears and minds stimulated. It was a fascinating combination, of a kind one never sees anymore at New York Philharmonic concerts.

Musical-world gossip has it that Boulez turned down the nearby Cathedral of St. John the Divine because of its boomy acoustics in favor of the surprisingly clear-sounding Columbia gymnasium. In any case, the sound heard by the audience, seated on the playing floor, was produced not just by the ambient acoustics of the gymnasium but also by the loudspeakers hung from the ceiling and posted at the corners of the room.

The loudspeakers were in their way the stars—certainly they were the loudest performers—of the evening. The short program contained only two works, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double (“Dialogue of the Double Shadow”) and Répons (“Response”). Although very different from each other, both works were as much creatures of late twentieth-century electronic technology as of their composer’s undoubtedly fertile mind.

Dialogue de l’Ombre Double—the title is drawn from Paul Claudel’s drama Le Soulier de satin (The Satin Slipper)—was written in 1985 for the composer Luciano Berio’s sixtieth birthday. It is a seventeen-minute piece for a solo clarinettist, playing both live (but amplified) from the stage and on a pre-recorded tape. The work alternates between its pre-recorded and live sections; the room lights, including spotlights focused on the stage, are turned off for the prerecorded sections, on for the live.

The musical material of Dialogue comprises improvisatory gestures made up of leaping passages utilizing the full range of the clarinet, and tremolos between intervals of varying sizes. Some relief from the thinness of the monodic musical line is provided by the clarinettist when he begins to play live before his pre-recorded double has quite finished; rather more relief is provided by the use of computer-generated procedures to pick out and lengthen individual notes and their overtone components.

The musical effect of all this legerdemain was, at least on this listener, meager. What sounds very much like clarinet improvisation—especially when the instrument is played in as refined a manner as it was here by Alain Damiens—is not unpleasant at all. But more is required to sustain interest over a quarter-hour than a clarinet playing in conversation with itself. At its best, Boulez’s Dialogue seemed to partake of the atmosphere of French impressionist music, most notably the opening of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune (1894), and Syrinx (1913) for solo flute. But Debussy’s works seem pointed and never too long, and Dialogue, alas, went on and on.

It cannot be denied, however, that what the composer did not supply in Dialogue by way of music was supplied by technology. The live clarinet, amplified though it was, sounded remarkably lifelike; the taped clarinet, though clearly recorded in a different acoustic, still sounded real. The exciting passage of the taped sounds from speaker to speaker around the gymnasium evoked nostalgic memories of demonstrations of quadraphonic sound—even, three decades ago, of early stereo. But the sounds at the Columbia gymnasium were so full-bodied and so distortion-free that one could appreciate the technology for the thrilling scientific and engineering miracle it is.

Répons, forty-five minutes long, was conducted by Boulez. From the first measures it was clear that it is compositionally a weightier piece by far than Dialogue. The program notes for the Columbia concert described in admirably succinct terms the work’s scoring and the instrumental set-up:

Répons is conceived on two distinct but intercommunicating planes. Seated in the middle of the auditorium is a chamber orchestra . . .: nine woodwinds, seven brass and eight strings, all treated as soloists, all allowed to make their music without electronic intervention. Then, positioned around the audience there are six players who each have a principal instrument and some adjunct: a pianist with a celesta, another pianist with an electric organ, a harpist with two harps differently tuned, and performers on cymbalon (the large trapezoidal Hungarian dulcimer on legs), vibraphone and xylophone, each with percussion. These six soloists also have tape recorders carrying “background” music, and their instrumental playing is fed via microphones to the electronic equipment for amplification, transformation and diffusion around the hall.

And so it was at Columbia, except that there seemed to be only one harp. It was soon clear that Répons is also technologically more imposing than Dialogue. Its sophisticated electronic equipment, which was not visible from where I sat, was also described in the program notes:

. . . the essential equipment consists of the 4X machine developed at IRCAM by Giuseppe de Giugno, and the halaphone invented by Hans Peter Haller in the studios of Southwest German Radio . . . . The system is able to alter the timbre of any sound before sending it on to the loudspeakers; it can also store an event and perhaps repeat it several times with programmed changes of pitch. Therefore, the electronic element is not merely passive, accepting and transmitting what the instrumentalists produce; rather, it has an active role in the music’s unfolding, and the computer technicians are “performers” of Répons quite as much as are the players of the more usual instruments.

With the first blocks of dissonantal chords that came from the chamber orchestra it was clear that Boulez as conductor was exerting a magisterial presence over the performance. As the instruments from around the hall were heard, adding to the heavy impasto of sound, Boulez seemed to dominate everything, presiding over what seemed like infinite separate planes of sound with spare, sharp, and decisive motions. When he gave cues, the response from the musicians was immediate and precise; he seemed a master of even the wild passages emanating from the two pianos as they played their cavorting figurations. Like his conductorial manner, the sound was rhythmically alive, hard-edged, at least superficially expressionless, and often brutal.

But there is more in music composition than finding a consistent style.

So triumphant was Boulez’s conducting that even the brilliant technology was thrown into the shade. I wish I could report that the triumph was not just that of Boulez the conductor but also that of Boulez the composer. But once again, as in Dialogue, it seemed that the musical material was mostly gesture and manner, and therefore essentially trivial. One can only admire Boulez’s skill in creating sounds which over a long period of time seem stylistically consistent and integrated. He surely has passed the test of finding his own style—the test which, as I mentioned in connection with the LaSalle Quartet concert, Artur Schnabel failed.

But there is more in music composition than finding a consistent style. There is the absolute necessity of giving the listener in some way the impression that he is hearing what for want of a better term must be called music—sound that through some miracle becomes euphony. Boulez’s blocks of dissonances, even when, as in Répons, they verge on lush, Messiaen-like harmonies, seem all too rarely to break through the noise barrier. It is not that his dissonances are extreme; and it is not that he uses more of them than, for example, the American composer Elliott Carter. But familiarity with Boulez’s materials does not, contrary to the case with Carter, render them musical. Whether because of the pitch intervals he uses, the density of their occurrence, the registers in which they are employed, the particular instrumental timbres for which he writes, or the attacks he asks his musicians to use, his dissonances do not seem to live, and his music does not seem to live either—as music.

But the music—or something—does live in Boulez’s own performance of it. Perhaps what Pierre Boulez presented on this night at the Columbia University gymnasium cannot be adequately described as music composition, any more than what he did can be adequately described as mere conducting. Perhaps the combination can only be described by that much-abused term, performance art. If such is the case, this was for once performance art done by an artist in full intellectual command of the most sophisticated musical techniques. Whatever one chooses to call it, by once again demonstrating the power of the performer as composer Pierre Boulez was the cause of what must surely be one of the most important events to have taken place in New York City musical life for many years.

  1. The LaSalle Quartet recordings of the Zemlinsky and the Apostel works, examples of fascinating and beautiful music that one has almost no chance to hear in concert, are currently available on Deutsche Grammophon 2741016. Go back to the text.
  2. The only Schnabel work listed now in the Schwann catalogue is the Duodecimet (1950), a piece for chamber ensemble; it is available, in a performance by Leon Fleisher with the New England Conservatory Ensemble, on Audiofon 2017. The Duodecimet, performed by an ensemble under Jacques Monod, was available for many years coupled with the rather more romantic and juicy String Trio (1925), played by the excellent Gailimir Trio, on Columbia ML (later CML) 5447. The Schnabel Quartet No. 3, by the way, is to be recorded by the LaSalle later this year for Deutsche Grammophon. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 8, on page 50
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