The Schneider QuartetThe LP cover shown here has been a welcome sight for more than 60 years, even as its appearance became less and less frequent, and eventually only a memory. It is Arno Schuele’s elegant design for the Haydn Society’s recordings of that composer’s string quartets, played by the Schneider Quartet. The same striking cover was used for all of those releases, printed in different color combinations for the various sets of quartets that came to be grouped under collective opus numbers; as the decades passed, Schuele’s unique and unmistakable design became the symbol of a treasure hunt successfully completed, among the cutout bins and resale shops. Now it has returned to grace the long-awaited restoration on CD of the invaluable recordings for which it was created. The splendidly executed restoration, from Music & Arts Programs of America (CD-1281, 15 CDs), is not a minor development, but a vital chamber music phenomenon, profoundly and excitingly welcome. There is even pleasure in recalling the circumstances that made it so, as well as acknowledging its arrival.

Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), one of the most remarkable musicians of his time, was himself a chamber music phenomenon, a sterling violinist, a motivating conductor, and a tireless musical activist who made important things happen. He founded his quartet for the express purpose of recording all the Haydn quartets -- 83 of them, if we include the six that constitute Op.3 (see below). He was second violin in the famous Budapest String Quartet, a position he held for two separate terms, 1932-44 and again from 1955 to 1967, when that group’s activity came to its end. Both during and between his extended terms with the Budapest Quartet, Schneider was forever busy founding and performing in other chamber music groups, such as the Albeneri Trio (with the cellist Benar Heifetz and the pianist Erich Itor Kahn) and the New York Piano Quartet (with the violist Milton Katims, the cellist Frank Miller and the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski).

Schneider, known to friends and colleagues as “Sasha,” eventually also created chamber orchestras and performed and recorded with existing ones in the US and England, while as violinist he took part in an “Alexander Schneider Chamber Music Series” of recordings for Vanguard. It was Schneider who persuaded the legendary cellist Pablo Casals to come out of retirement in 1950, when he organized, as the first in a series of Casals Festivals in the French Pyrenees, a large-scale Bach Festival, marking the bicentenary of that composer’s death. Later, Schneider brought Casals to the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, arranging for recordings to be made in both settings. He also had a hand in the Casals Festivals in Puerto Rico, where he recorded as conductor with Casals in the Dvoƙák Concerto (issued briefly on Everest).

When the Haydn Society approached him, in 1949, to undertake a complete recording of all the Haydn quartets, Schneider responded eagerly, having long thought of such an undertaking himself, and proceeded to assemble a foursome with three colleagues from the first Casals Festival, at Prades. The Schneider Quartet -- Sasha as first violin; Isidore Cohen (remembered now as violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio in its golden years, when it recorded all the Haydn trios for Philips) as second; Karen Tuttle, viola; Madeline Foley, cello -- made its first recordings in Perpignan in 1951, at the end of the second Casals Festival. In the fall of that year the Schneider Quartet began giving public performances in New York, where the rest of its recordings were made. The concerts were not limited to Haydn; the programs even included contemporary works. Those live events provided the newly formed Schneider Quartet with the invaluable experience of frequent performance as a unit, and there was never the slightest lack of utter cohesiveness in the Haydn recordings, which took on legendary status almost as soon as they were issued.

Quartet portrait

A personnel replacement was required in 1953, when Madeline Foley left. After a couple of false starts, Schneider found a splendid replacement for her, more or less through the relationship he had established with the Marlboro Festival. When he was in the Budapest Quartet the cellist was his own older brother, Mischa Schneider; the eventual permanent replacement for Madeline Foley was Herman Busch, the longtime cellist in the illustrious Busch Quartet, led by his older brother Adolf Busch, who, among his other distinctions, was a founder of the Marlboro Festival and School. Herman Busch is heard in the Schneider recordings of the Op.2, Op.20 and Op.76 quartets, and, now for the first time, in the previously unissued movements of Op.64, No.1.

Sasha Schneider was not able to complete his Haydn cycle, because the funding ran out in 1954, by which time he had got just past the halfway mark, and the Haydn Society itself foundered not long after that. The quartets that were recorded and issued by the Haydn Society on LP -- all in the sets identified by opus numbers -- were, Op.1 (six quartets); Op.2 (six quartets, with horns in Nos. 3 and 5); Op.17 (six quartets); Op.20 (six quartets); Op.33 (six quartets); Op.42 (a single quartet, in D minor); Op.50 (six quartets); Op.51, The Seven Last Words of the Saviour on the Cross (Introduction, seven sonatas, conclusion); Op.76 (six quartets); Op.77 (two quartets); Op.103 (an unfinished work, comprising an Andante grazioso and a Minuet).

Missing were the six quartets of Op.3, the six of Op.9, the three of Op.54, the three of Op.55, the six of Op.64, the three of Op.71, and the three of Op.74. Sasha would surely have included the Op.3 set (in which the slow movement of No.5 is the “Serenade” frequently heard on its own in various arrangements), because it was not until 1964 that Alan Tyson and H.C. Robbins Landon published their research showing the priest and avid Haydn-admirer Roman Hoffstetter as the more likely actual composer, which came to be quickly but not universally accepted.

Complete or not, the Schneider Haydn recordings acquired legendary status almost as soon as they were issued. It is safe to say that no music has been better served in recordings. These performances had the power, conviction, authority and technical security -- together with an unselfconscious and unfailing gift for balancing intensity with relaxation, depth with humor -- to certify them as being “beyond all norms,” and to spoil the listener for anything less. To be sure, there have been several subsequent attempts at recording all the Haydn quartets that were brought to completion: fine performances for the most part, and benefiting from decades of advances in the art of sound recording (one of these, played on period instruments by the Festetics Quartet of Budapest, has just reappeared on the Arcana label), but none has displaced the well founded enthusiasm for the Schneider performances.

Before enumerating the benefits of the M&A reissue, it might be of interest to fill in a bit about the Haydn Society itself. It was founded in 1949, with headquarters in Boston (but no connection with the venerable performing organization known as the Handel and Haydn Society, also resident there), by H.C. Robbins Landon, who is remembered now as the most productive and widely respected of all Haydn scholars. He had already set up a base in Vienna, where several other musically adventurous Americans were actively tapping that city’s abundant resources for their fledgling record labels, and at age 23, with a group of similarly committed young musicians and scholars (and funding, I understand, from his father, a railroad magnate), he set out on his mission to create authentic editions and authentic recordings of Haydn’s works.

The first setting in which many of us saw Landon’s name, in fact, was the cover of the Haydn Society’s first LP release, HSLP 1001, on which he was identified as the performer of the harpsichord continuo in Haydn’s Symphonies Nos.1, 13 and 28, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sternberg. The unsigned annotations for that recording, and for several of the Society’s subsequent ones, were written by Landon, who was to be directly involved in countless subsequent Haydn recordings on various labels for the rest of his life.

While one of the Haydn Society’s first acts was to contact Schneider about recording the quartets, the lesser-known symphonies were its earliest releases, and most of those the Society recorded at that time had not been recorded before. Sternberg was on the podium for most of them at first, and his performances were a good deal more than merely serviceable. Particularly memorable is the broad, unlabored humanity of the slow movement of No.28, in which no subsequent recording has generated anything quite like the communicative power of this first one.

Haydn himself was not the only composer to receive attention among the Haydn Society’s recordings, and Vienna did not remain its only location for recording. Newell Jenkins conducted an “Italian Chamber Orchestra” in several works of Boccherini and his compatriots under the rubric “Italian Classical Symphonists.” There were chamber music and concertos by the likes of Vivaldi, Leclair, and Telemann. There was Monteverdi’s opera Orfèo, in a recording that was also issued on Vox, and, in a co-production with Erato, there was an unforgettable introduction to the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, comprising the marvelous Te Deum and several shorter works. There was even a first original microgroove recording of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, conducted by the authoritative René Leibowitz. Mozart, though, was the most highly represented composer after Haydn: a respectable Don Giovanni conducted by Hans Swarowsky; Lili Kraus in the sonatas, and in the piano trios with Willy Boskovsky and Nikolas Huebner; a memorable Clarinet Concerto with Louis Cahuzac; a pathbreaking recording of the Piano Concerto No.17 in G major, K.453, with Ralph Kirkpatrick at the keyboard of a fortepiano of the composer’s time, and Schneider conducting, paired with Schneider’s performance, as both soloist and conductor, of the Violin Concerto No.4 in D major, K.218.

Kirkpatrick, who thus became the first well known soloist to record a Mozart keyboard concerto on a “period instrument,” was more widely known as a harpsichordist, and as such performed and recorded with Schneider frequently in those days. He also recorded solo works of Bach for the Haydn Society.

The Schneider QuartetThe Haydn Society label more or less vanished not long after Schneider had to give up on completing his Haydn quartet cycle, but much of its catalogue reappeared at the end of the 1950s, to circulate for almost ten years under a different series of catalogue numbers. Not all of its earlier releases turned up, but the Charpentier collection did, and so did the Schneider Quartet’s Haydn. For many listeners and collectors, nothing else recorded by the Society was to remain so much in demand as that incomplete but incomparable coverage of the quartets. When CD was introduced, some 30 years ago, the feeling was that “it can’t be long now” -- but it turned out to be a long wait. As if to justify that long wait, though, the reissue finally at hand sounds better than ever, in the superb transfers by Lani Spahr, and there are some unexpected but fascinating additional benefits.

First of all, the documentation: Haydn Society LPs always came with exceptional annotation and, after those first few symphony releases, exceptional covers as well, by Schuele and by Joseph Low. In addition to what Rob Landon supplied, with or without his signature, the original covers for the Schneider Quartet recordings boasted, beneath the heading “The Complete String Quartets of Joseph Haydn,” “Analytical notes by Dr. Karl Geiringer” (one of Landon’s most influential teachers), or by his respected British colleague Marion M. Scott. On the box and booklet for the M&A set, however, not only has the word “Complete” been appropriately eliminated from the heading, but the original annotative credit has been replaced with the announcement “Including an essay by TULLY POTTER,” and in the booklet there is the generous assurance “Original LP liner notes by Marion M. Scott and Karl Geiringer available for free download.”

That statement has a minor flaw, in that the Schneider LP sleeves had no “liners.” Arno Schuele’s distinctive design actually wrapped around to cover both the front and the back, and the expansive notes, with their helpful musical examples, were printed on tasteful inserts. Some discographers may note the absence of recording dates for everything but the single exception noted below, but is this even worth mentioning, when everything is acknowledged to have been taped between 1951 and 1954? More to the point by far is that the purchasers of this box of CDs are less likely to feel a need for musical analysis than to want background on these truly historical recordings and the musicians involved -- and the conspicuous positioning of Tully Potter’s name is the very best assurance anyone could have in this respect.

Mr. Potter, the author of one of an incomparably thorough and elaborately detailed biography of Adolf Busch, which took more than 30 years to put together, and a sought-after annotator for reissue projects, simply knows more about the world of the string quartet and its illustrious practitioners than anyone else in our galaxy, and shares his vast knowledge with us in the most engaging way. He is particularly enlightening in the present instance, recalling earlier attempts at recording the Haydn quartets in toto, and drawing on interviews and conversations with Schneider himself to give us some generally unknown but truly fascinating information on his amazing career and in particular his early infatuation with the Haydn quartets, citing Sasha’s memoirs to describe an amazing four-day play-through of the entire cycle in 1931, with colleagues from the Hamburg Radio Orchestra, whose concertmaster he was at the time.

M&A has given Mr. Potter all the space he needed to give us “all we know and all we need to know” about Sasha Schneider and his Haydn quartet project, and in the course of his essay he cites some discussions of this music and its recordings with Antony Hodgson, an acknowledged Haydn scholar, author of a book on recordings of the symphonies, and producer of several of them conducted by Leslie Jones. Potter’s fact-filled nine-page essay ends with the remark, “To Alexander Schneider, dullness was anathema -- and it will not be found here.” That observation definitely applies as well to Tully Potter himself and his exemplary contribution to this set.

Apart from the documentation, and the very generous price (“15 CDs for the price of eight,” which in this case means $119.99), there is actually a greater quantity of music on these 15 CDs than there was on the original LPs. The most obvious addition comes at the end of disc 12: the aforementioned outer movements of the Quartet in C major, Op.64, No.1, in C major, which had never been commercially released until now. This material was recorded in New York on October 5, 1954, in what may have been the Schneider Quartet’s very last session, and was discovered, in separated segments, among the master tapes made available to Lani Spahr for his transfers.

The Schneider QuartetWhile this conspicuous addition to what the LP collectors may have expected to find here is duly noted in the track listing and annotation, there is a very interesting bonus that is not mentioned in Tully Potter's otherwise all-encompassing notes, or anywhere else in this package. On my old LPs, the Schneider Quartet does not observe the repeats in the movements in sonata form in Haydn's late quartets -- those beginning with the Op.20 set of the early 1780s (the so-called "Sun" Quartets that stimulated Mozart to compose his own mature works in this form, the first set of which he dedicated to Haydn and introduced in their famous "quartet parties”) -- and yet the repeats are present on the new CDs, inevitably provoking some curiosity about how they got there

The question of repeats has always been of greater interest to some scholars, performers and “serious listeners” than to others. There are sometimes compelling reasons for including them: in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, omission of the repeat eliminates also the lovely passage the composer provided to lead into it. In other instances, composers have declared that they indicated a repeat simply out of custom, and did not expect it to be actually observed in performance. Several Haydn scholars, however, emphasize that this composer did intend his repeats to be observed in performance.

Antony Hodgson (who has made a very persuasive case, by the way, for the Op.3 quartets’ being genuine Haydn rather than composed by Hoffstetter) had expressed the hope that Schneider may have taken the repeats after all and, after being eliminated during the mastering of the recordings for LP, those repeats might still turn up on the master tapes sent to Lani Spahr. Otherwise, the alternative procedure would be copying the material to be repeated, and splicing it in where the repeat is called for.

That sort of repair work, after all, is done with some frequency. Many a flawed phrase, in all sorts of recordings, has been replaced in this manner with a patch from a better take, and the seams don’t show. This method has even been used by the original recording producer in some instances, when repeats are to be included, but may be achieved more expeditiously by simply copying and splicing than by using studio time for an actual performance of the repeated material. It’s quite a different matter, however, when the composer indicates some specific change in the repeat -- e.g., calling for the repeat, or part of it, to be played faster or slower than the first time around.

If it were found that repeats were spliced in, one might imagine that some of the collectors who knew these indispensable recordings from the LPs might feel that if Alexander Schneider chose not to take repeats, his decision must be respected, while others might just as strongly express thanks for the technology that made the repeats possible -- and a greater number of nonprofessional listeners who do not follow with a score may simply not even notice.

It is altogether quite possible, though, that Schneider may have intended to take repeats, and may even have recorded them, but was persuaded to forgo them in this case, out of some practical concern, and accepting this very real possibility may take us closer to resolving this issue.

Certain musicians who knew Schneider well (but do not wish to be quoted by name) offer assurance that it was definitely his custom to observe repeats in Haydn quartets -- and this is borne out by the inclusion of repeats in the earlier quartets in his Haydn Society recordings, even on the original LPs, making their omission in the later works peculiarly inconsistent.

Moreover, other observant discophiles have noted that some of the various editions of the LPs -- some on different labels in different parts of the world, but also some pressings on the Haydn Society’s own label in the US -- the late quartets did have repeats!

In any event, while M&A might have offered some explication -- at least simply alerted us to the presence of the repeats -- these are performances which the fortunate listener simply doesn’t want to end, and I can only repeat that they have never sounded better. Beyond questions of completeness, authorship, the use of horns in Op.2, or of taking repeats, the Schneider Quartet performances revived so effectively here have become “legendary” simply because each and every one of them is a certifiable gem.

The two towering masterworks of Op.77 (in which I first noticed the unexpected appearance of repeats) are convincing beyond description because the performers involved understood that the music’s greatness emerges all the more clearly when not gratuitously monumentalized. The charm and humor which also characterize portions of so many of the quartets, from the earliest to the latest, come through with similar effectiveness when addressed on this level of straightforwardness and instinctive respect. There is not a gratuitous gesture in the entire project, or a single work that seems less than spontaneous and fresh. The Seven Last Words, a work to which Schneider was particularly attached, comes off with unforced directness and extraordinary musical sense. The horns in Op.2 Nos.3 and 5 are simply too heartily agreeable to be a matter of any level of disputatiousness -- and, by no means incidentally, Lani Spahr’s transfers are admirable not merely for their sonic excellence but for their good musical sense.

Does that mean these are the all-time “best” recordings of the Haydn quartets? There are some very appealing ones of most of the individual works out there now, beautiful performances that benefit from warm and full stereophonic sound which itself may be declared objectively and unquestionably superior to monophonic sound from more than 60 years ago, even when restored as splendidly as in this new set. But what M&A has given us is so unarguably essential and, as already stated, so downright indispensable, as to render the concept of “best” rather meaningless. Indeed, performances on this level of commitment, authority and assurance have always made comparison simply beside the point.

Fred Maroth died in November 2013, just as this set was being readied for release. The last line in the accompanying booklet, following Tully Potter’s invaluable notes and the various credits and acknowledgements, reads, “Dedicated to the memory of Frederick J. Maroth, 1929-2013.” I think Fred would have been pleased with this memorial. I’m sure that music lovers and record collectors will be pleased with this part of his legacy -- a “keeper” if ever was, not merely for its symbolism or its professionalism, but for the real-life enjoyment and enlightenment it provides for any and for all who regard music as an essential part of human life.

. . . Richard Freed