American Record Guide
, December 2006
This is a wonderful album-nothing profound, mostly well-written shorter works in performances that capture their sheer American swing and nostalgia, Arnold Steinhardt, who has been lead violinist of the Guarneri Quartet for 42 years, turns 70 next year. Last time I heard the Guarneri, they sounded "over the hill" (or at least Steinhardt did). Now I realize that was because his slightly uneven vibrato and tone are a bad basis for serious quartet music. But as a soloist in the repertoire here, he really swings, and his pitch and style are dead on. He can be saccharine-sweet with Gershwinesque portamentos (make that "Heifetz" portamentos-only after thinking that did I read that Heifetz too loved this repertoire) and then shift without batting an eyelash into the mellowest, creamiest, comforting style. In fact, like Heifetz, he's often just a bit ahead of the beat, making the melody line breathe with flexibility, while his brother Victor- who's just as hot at the keyboard- not only serves as the rhythmic foundation but has a magic flexibility all his own. These guys really make music together!
For the most part, the music is great too. The full title of Robert Russell Bennett's work is Hexapoda: Five Studies in Jitteroptera. Written in 1940, it's really five jitterbugs in eight minutes that make you want to stand, bend your knees, and shift your splayed fingers back and forth across them. In Lukas Foss's salute to his new homeland in 1944 the Steinhardts make the second movement very lovely indeed, and in III Arnold turns in some firstclass fiddling. They turn Copland's 'Nocturne' from Two Pieces for violin and piano (1926) into a nostalgic piece of blues with humid lingering. And they take full advantage of Victor Steinhardt's classically complex six-minute 'Tango', which is really rich in soul and has a remarkably expressive piano part.
I simply couldn't warm to Leonard Bernstein's Violin Sonata, written when he was only 21 years old, despite the ample expression and sustained long lines the Steinhardts give to it. The four-minute first movement is followed by a six-part theme and variations that sound like Bernstein thought too much about being dissonant-original and had yet to find his voice, Henry Burleigh's Southland Sketches, on the other hand, are four somewhat simple-minded sketches on four lovely Negro folk melodies. The violin melody line never really stretches beyond mid-range, and the piano accompaniment has little interest.
Victor Steinhardt accompanies his brother in everything except the last two works, where the composers take over the piano. 'Bluefields, A West Hollywood Rumba for Arnold' (1998) by Lincoln Mayorga reflects the composer's Hollywood studio career. Its piano part, extremely well played by Mayorga, is very active but pure pop style. Dave Grusin also has had a Hollywood career but has kept a toehold in classical music as well, and it shows in his 16-minute Three Latin American Dances (2000), where he and Arnold Steinhardt are joined by cellist Amanda Forsyth (principal cellist of Ottawa's National Arts Center Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman's wife). In the rich full-blooded opening Argentine dance, she's hardly noticeable. In the clever lighter-textured middle Cuban dance, she's given a brief solo. But in the Venezuelan dance that begins with a round for violin and cello, once Grusin's really mean pianism is added, it becomes an infectious finale bordering on a jam session.
Recorded at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, the sound is ideal.