Distinguished and refined artists they may be, but the Guarneri's performances here left me cold. "A common grayness silvers every thing"; these are the blandest accounts I have ever heard of some of the most impassioned and unsettling music ever written and I turned to a variety of competitive versions to substantiate my first impressions. Sure enough, whether it was the nuanced Romanticism of the Juilliard, the razor-sharp attack of the Takács, the mercurial sensitivity of the Tokyo or the melodious propulsiveness of the Kodály, all those quartets left the Guarneri in the dust no matter which of the four works here I sampled.
I marvelled at how it is possible to command such technical expertise yet fail to respond to the bitter-sweet beauty and melancholy undercurrents of Schubert's music; these accounts just jog-trot along. The Allegro movements which open both D804 and D887 are hopelessly compromised by the listless tempo adopted; they are indeed marked "ma non troppo" and "molto moderato" respectively but that is surely no invitation to stroll. Of course "Allegro moderato" isn't as much about tempo as inner tension and phrasing but the Guarneri play as if they are unaware of the need to remind the listener that Schubert's music so often had its roots in dance rhythms.
Matters pick up a little in the famous "Quartettsatz" but for some reason this recording emphasises a kind of nasal, muted tone to Arnold Steinhardt's first violin and the harsh, blaring quality of the sound as a whole vitiates any appreciation of this, the most committed performance in the two disc set. Having said that, I maintain that the Tokyo Quartet brings far more passion to it. The homogeneity and security of the Guarneri may easily be admired but such qualities are as nought when compromised by indifferent sound and music-making far too comfortable for its own good. Dynamic shading is lazy, too: everything is in tune and properly co-ordinated but it's all so unengaging.
The Guarneri do not take any repeats, presumably because they have so few ideas about how to enliven the music that any repetition would merely underline their interpretative vacuity.
There is little magic in these humdrum performances and so many highly competitive and vastly superior alternative accounts to be had that this re-issue by Newton need not detain you.
For a much better example of the Guarneri at their best, look at their Dvorak recital on the same label.