String quartets are not always the easiest thing to listen to. They are among the most abstract of chamber-music forms, and hearing them is like viewing only charcoal drawings for two hours - one gets lines but no color.
The Guarneri Quartet's all-Beethoven concert at Jordan Hall Saturday night was somewhat like a charcoal drawing: The technique was dazzling, but the playing passionless.
The opening piece, the Quartet Op. 18, No. 5, was almost perfectly executed, but was surprisingly tedious. The Guarneri produced a polished sheen too refined for the rough-hewn Beethoven who composed this youthful music. They bowed the first movement's staccato themes with scratchy exactness. The slow movement's thick textures were clear but sounded businesslike rather than tender. The fugue itself was played with energy and conviction.
When it came to the Grosse Fuge, the Guarneri seemed to put aside its glittery style and dig into the complexities of the music. The often spiritual quality of the work lent itself better to the aloof style of the players, and they achieved some interesting colors. With the return to less severe music, the five-movement Quartet Op. 132, came a return to more interpretive boredom. Instead of rich tone and breadth in the playing of this long, texture-varied work, there was the same steeliness that dominated the Op. 18 Quartet. The only point of excitement in the work came in a quiet choralelike section when the flawlessly tuned chords, played without vibrato, seemed to open a window to heaven.
The Guarneri Quartet has developed a brilliant ensemble and technique. But without sincere involvement, this hard-won technique may continue to go to waste.