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‘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’s judgment, reasonableness and erudition sparkle in these fascinating conversations, as does his sense of humour.

Born in 1924, Walter levin grew up in Berlin. His family played chamber music at home. Leaving Berlin in 1938, he went first to Tel Aviv, 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. Although this was unconventional, Levin was given permission, even encouragement. Thus, the quartet which eventually became known as the Lasalle Quartet studied intensively with the Juilliard Quartet.

The Lasalles (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 the label’s will. Today, there is no doubt about the importance of the Lasalle Quartet as a proponent of contemporary music.

Spruytenburg’s account, charming, revealing and compelling, is an essential addition to the literature on 20th-century music, one that should be on the reading list of all string players who aspire to a professional career. Warmly recommended.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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