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The LaSalle Quartet
Conversations with Walter Levin, by Robert Spruytenburg. Translated by Richard Howe
420 pages. £25.00. Hardback. Boydell Press
"Trying to learn a piece from the parts is almost as hopeless as an actor trying to learn his lines without reading the whole play," Walter Levin once said. Levin, founder, first violinist and inspiration behind the great LaSalle String Quartet, added: "Imagine coming to the first rehearsal and saying: 'I'm supposed to play a guy called Othello. And you? Who are you? Desdemona! Who's that? I don't know the piece; I've just learned my own part!' Levin was a great advocate of the practice of playing from the quartet score, not from the parts.
Levin's judgement, reasonableness and erudition sparkle in these fascinating conversations, as does his sense of humour, seen in the above vivid citation of Othello. '"Because I like it" is not a criterion,' was Levin's maxim. With a straight face, Levin once said: 'the main thing is to practice as little as possible.'
Born in 1924, Walter Levin grew up in Berlin. His family had chamber music all the time at home. Leaving Berlin in 1938, he went first to Palestine, but it was already his goal while studying music in Palestine to go to one of the great American music schools as soon as possible after the war.
He arrived in New York in 1946. Thanks to the comprehensive musical education he had enjoyed in Palestine - he was also an excellent pianist - Levin was able to skip the first four years at Juilliard.
At the time, William Schuman was the newly-appointed President of Juilliard. Levin told Schuman that he wished to study string quartet as his major at Juilliard. Although this was unconventional, Levin was given permission, and encouragement. Thus, the quartet which eventually became known as the LaSalle Quartet studied intensively with the Juilliard Quartet.
The LaSalle Quartet (active between 1946 and 1987) became Second Viennese School experts. Gradually they played all of the quartet pieces associated with that school and, over time, recorded them for Deutsche Grammophon, albeit initially against that company's will. Today there is no doubt about the importance of the LaSalle Quartet as a proponent of contemporary music.
The name 'LaSalle' came about in 1946, when Robert Mann (of the Juilliard Quartet), was making a phone call to a concert agency in New Jersey. He was asked the name of Levin's quartet, which he was recommending. Mann sensed that the agency wouldn't book a no-name quartet, so he looked out of the apartment window, saw the street sign on the opposite corner, at Broadway and LaSalle, and thus the quartet was named. The Quartet's 1971 path-breaking complete recording of the complete string quartets of the Second Viennese School is possibly the only quartet recording in history that is still on the market after such a long time.
Spruytenburg's account, charming, revealing and compelling, is an essential addition to the literature on twentieth-century music, one that should be on the reading list of all string players who aspire to a professional career.
John Robert Brown