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A happy return for Guarneri Quartet

Forty years ago, four string players at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont formed the Guarneri Quartet. It wasn't long after that the group became one of the great brand names in international music making.

The membership remained stable until 2001, when cellist David Soyer played his farewell concert with the group. His successor, Peter Wiley, had studied with Soyer beginning at age 11. That New York farewell concert featured both cellists in Schubert's great String Quintet in C Major.

To celebrate the 40th birthday, Soyer has rejoined his old colleagues and his former pupil to play the Quintet again in a number of performances, one of which took place in Jordan Hall Sunday night. Now in his 80s, Soyer seems to have lost none of his skill and spontaneity, and the performance was a magical event. It was moving to hear him play the sublime cello duet with Wiley in the first movement, and he was fully up to the difficult passages in the slow movement. Just to hear him "place" a pizzicato with subtle but unerring rhythmic precision was a great experience.

The piece is one of those that earned Schubert his reputation for "heavenly length," but when played with this degree of intensity across the wide range of its moods -- from wistfulness to tragedy and celebration -- it passes as if in a single moment of perfect bliss.

The concert opened with Beethoven's 12th quartet, Op. 127, in another memorable performance, with Wiley providing his own kind of eloquent anchorage. The playing -- by first violin Arnold Steinhardt, second violin John Dalley, and violist Michael Tree, in addition to Wiley -- wasn't flawless (there were some issues of intonation and some fudging of detail). But the musicianship, experience, and sophisticated intent of this group continue to grow, and to hear the rhythmic vitality in the inner voices of Dalley and Tree is always a treat.

Sunday night the playing of the quartet was more interesting and more affecting to hear than it was during those decades when technical perfection could be taken for granted, because it was even more fully human.

Guarneri String Quartet
With David Soyer, cello
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday night

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