Léner String Quartet

Léner-vonósnégyes (Fotó: Zeneakadémia képgyűjteménye)
(Fotó: Zeneakadémia
The Léner String Quartet was founded in 1919 by four close friends and erstwhile fellow students at the Music Academy: Jenő Léner (I. violin) and József Smilovits, who was a year or two younger (II. violin), with Sándor Róth (viola) and Imre Hartmann (cello). Léner, the leader, who gave his name to the quartet, was born on 23 June 1894, into a poor Szabadka family. It was only at the price of considerable privation that his parents managed to have him educated at the Budapest Music Academy. After gaining his artist's diploma, he started work in the Opera House orchestra, but from the beginning of the twenties concentrated exclusively on quartet work. As Antal Molnár wrote in his short monograph on the Léner String Quartet, "in Hungary, even at the time of Csokonai (translator's note: Hungarian poet, 1733-1805), being a klezmer musician was a widespread occupation among Jews, the orchestras working rather like Gypsy bands. Léner had an unmistakeable inclination towards this style of playing: captivating the audience, mesmerising the masses, entering their souls by his tone. Those recalling Léner's playing always emphasize his sweet violin sound… He must have learned a great deal from Hubay, but he went further. I feel that he was closer to the great Gypsy bandleaders, Imre Magyari, or Antal Kóczé, at least as regards the fundamentals of tone… He was not given the glory of a soloist: he had too much self-criticism to allow himself to be swept away by the mirage of such intentions. There remained, therefore, as the only chance: chamber music. /…/ It would be ridiculous to compare, however remotely, a quartet musician to Caesar or Napoleon. Nonetheless, these men of power, who are predestined by various latent mental diseases to make almost mad plans of a global character, come to my mind. Léner's disease was poverty, and being locked into restricted possibilities, with a great soul. His planning was not sober either: he wanted not only to work with his ensemble and make it well known in many places, but, combined with this, he wanted a rich financial career as well."
After several months of rehearsals, the quartet had its debut in Szeged in 1919. Soon the Budapest critics also took notice of their dynamic and mature playing. A year later Maurice Ravel was among those present at their Vienna debut, and was so captivated by the young Hungarian musicians that he immediately invited them to Paris. That launched their series of successes of the twenties and thirties. In 1923 the quartet settled in England, and it was from here that they went on their European, and later overseas, tours. They also made numerous recordings in London, some of which – among them the cycle of Beethoven quartets – won prestigious awards and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. "Our gramophone records are kept in the Beethoven Museum in Bonn and in the library of the White House in Washington, and we keep touring worldwide" – Léner told the Budapest Pesti Napló in November, 1931. "Our affairs are handled by eight impresarios and three secretaries; we have ninety-six engagements already booked for this season, and this number will increase even further." The recognition given to the ensemble is shown by the fact that Respighí, Milhaud, and Malipiero all dedicated one of their quartets to the Léner Quartet, and that Léner's methodological work, The Technique of String Quartet Playing, published in London, was taught for decades at important universities.
At the end of the thirties the quartet, in order to escape the war in Europe, moved to Mexico City, and then, in 1941, broke up. Léner, however, a year later reconstituted the quartet, by then based in New York, with Laszló Steinhardt playing second violin, Ralph Hirsch viola and Gábor Rejtő cello. The ensemble, which was successful primarily in America, at various times had as its members Miklós Harsányi, Ottó Déri, Mihály Kuttner, László Varga and Alfréd Indig. In 1947 and 1948 the quartet, comprising Léner, Kuttner, Harsányi and Varga, gave highly successful concerts in Budapest, but by then Léner was seriously ill and on 29 November 1948 died in New York.
Attila Retkes


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