GUARNERI STRING QUARTET, de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Thursday

Among string quartets today, few can match the Guarneri for musicality, style, sophistication and the absolute joy of playing music.

Together for nearly 45 years now (except for cellist Peter Wiley, who joined the group after David Soyer retired a few years back), the Guarneri plays as if it were just starting out — with wonder and excitement for this great literature.

The three original members — violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley and violist Michael Tree — as well as Wiley bring a freshness to the music that is rare and always welcome. And that has been their trademark. There are many fine quartets out there, but only a handful come close to the Guarneri. The four are in a world apart.

After all these years together performing and recording the standard repertoire, the members of the quartet still manage to find something new in the music. Their performances are never stale or unimaginative. As artists, the four are continually evolving.

The quartet has been a frequent guest in Utah in its five-decades-long existence. Thursday it returned, this time to Brigham Young University. And as the four so forcefully demonstrated to the near capacity audience in de Jong Concert Hall, they are at the top of their game. They are, quite simply, masters of the literature and of their respective instruments.

Within the dictates of chamber-music programming today, classical works invariably open the concert, followed by something from the 19th and/or 20th centuries. Not so with the Guarneri. Going against conventional wisdom, the quartet opened the concert with Bartok's Second Quartet, one of the most potent of the six he wrote, with its bleak and dark finale.

The group compellingly captured the anguish and pain of this movement, bringing out the emotional intensity and finely hewn expressions with perceptive interpretation. It was a powerful way to begin.

Haydn's D major Quartet, op. 20, no. 4, which followed, was the perfect antidote to the Bartok. Haydn brings so much to this work in terms of harmonic language and rich expressiveness. The four underscored this with their reading, which brought romantic warmth to the music within the classically defined structure of the work. Their playing was eloquent and lyrical and tinged with passion and feeling.

The concert ended with Smetana's Quartet in E minor ("From My Life"). This is intensely personal music, and the performers infused their playing with drama, emotional depth and a vibrancy that gave this work life and meaning.

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