By opening its Concert Series with the Budapest Quartet and closing on Sunday afternoon with the Paganini, Picrian sodality has made comparisons inevitable. The contrast, however, is not of mere quality--both are superb organizations--but rather of differing musical conceptions.
The Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 shows Debussy of 1893 still with frank ties to late Romanticism, and not yet obsessed by the mannerisms associated with that cliche, "impressionist." Sunday's performance epitomized the standards of the Paganini musicians. Besides their interest in absolute accuracy of rhythm and intonation, the players aimed principally for lush sound. The intensely sweet tone softened the second movement into a romantic evocation of Spain, and in the Andantino it suspended time with a wholly sensuous magic.
But in other works the kind of performance that made Debussy unforgettable was more controversial. It became apparent in Mozart's Dissonant Quartet that the Paganini members have attained refinement at the price of their own individuality. Their overwhelming sense of ensemble--with its attendant precision--robbed the music of linear independence. This produced a curious lack of internal rhythmic drive, although actual tempos never lagged, as the Mozart took on too much polish it became increasingly dull.
Beethoven's Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131 received similar treatment. Particularly for this piece, comparison with the Budapest group became unavoidable. Many people insist that Beethoven's chamber music be performed with the masculine vigor of the Budapest, for all its lack of suavity. The Paganini, on the other hand, emphasized grace and subtlety. But from a critical standpoint, the integrity of either approach is unquestionable. The greatness of the Paganini Quartet lies in the perfection of its own musical objectives.