In chamber music, three's company and four's sublime. A great string quartet is like a great marriage, equal partners breathing as one, concerned with maintaining a sensitive, considerate union of ideas and ideals. For 36 years, the Guarneri String Quartet has exemplified this sort of togetherness, only getting better with age and experience. But, starting last season, the famed Guarneri foursome underwent its first change.
Founding cellist David Soyer began preparing for his retirement this summer by limiting appearances with the group, turning over his chair to Peter Wiley, who had similarly replaced a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio for several years. It was with Wiley that the Guarneri Quartet appeared Saturday evening for the Candlelight Concerts series at Howard Community College's Smith Theater in Columbia.
Those determined to find differences might have noticed a few. Wiley's tone sounded a little smaller than I remember Soyer's to be, not quite as dark and striking. (The theater's lifeless acoustics didn't help any.) The newcomer's phrasing, too, sometimes lacked assertiveness, as if he were still testing the waters after a year or so working with his colleagues. For the most part, though, Wiley fit into the ensemble snugly during a performance notable for its seriousness and authority.
Dispensing with the conventional soften-up-the-audience-first approach to programming, the group plunged in with Bartok, his String Quartet No. 3. It's a piece as notable for the spicy harmonic language as for its inventive structure, with the second pair of movements providing a kind of filtered reflection of the first. The Guarneri players concentrated on turning the black and white of the score into a clear-cut, four-way dialogue of strong poetic content.
In Brahms' B-flat major Quartet, Op. 67, there were moments when more dynamic expression would have been welcome; phrasing was rather reserved and impersonal even in the warm-hearted second movement. Still, the playing had many a strength, especially in violist Michael Tree's solos. If first violinist Arnold Steinhardt's tone had frayed edges here and there, his sense of the singing line paid off handsomely.
Where the Guarneri soared most winningly was in Ravel's F major Quartet. The musicians heated up the score's lyricism to keen effect (second violinist John Dalley made particularly telling points) and unleashed its myriad tone colors with remarkable technical refinement.