Researched and Written by Bryan Bishop
The Virtuoso String Quartet was founded late in 1923 by four British musicians, apparently for the express purpose of making recordings. Each of its members was a veteran of the recording studios. First violinist Marjorie Hayward and cellist Cedric Sharpe (whose idea the Virtuoso String Quartet seems to have been) were both long-standing solo artists at HMV (“His Master’s Voice,” or The Gramophone Co., Ltd.), and were each also a member of a previous string quartet making recordings, Hayward with the English String Quartet on Columbia, and Sharpe with the Philharmonic String Quartet on HMV. Second violinist Edwin Virgo was a member of the former ensemble, and violist Raymond Jeremy a member of the latter.
I am indebted to Tully Potter, who probably knows as much about great string players of the past – and their recordings – as anyone alive, for the above information. Interested persons should look into his excellent article, “Virtues of the Virtuoso Four”, published in the Summer 2011 issue of Classical Recordings Quarterly, which is a survey of the Virtuoso String Quartet’s activity in studios (both recording and radio) and in concert.
While earlier string quartet ensembles (such as the Flonzaley, Catterall and Lener String Quartets) had begun their recording careers by being limited to making potboilers, isolated movements and abridgements from the string quartet repertoire before being permitted to record complete works, the Virtuoso String Quartet took the opposite trajectory during their brief career in the studios. By the time of their appearance, there was a push to record, for the first time, major symphonic and chamber music works in complete form, largely instigated by a new journal, “The Gramophone,” founded in 1923 by Compton Mackenzie. The Virtuoso String Quartet recorded three complete quartets – one by Tchaikovsky, one by Beethoven, and the Franck, as well as the Frank Bridge “Three Idylls” – by the acoustical recording process, and each of these was a recording première. With the arrival of electrical recording, the Virtuoso String Quartet were able to contribute to the Beethoven centennial celebrations in 1927 with three more Beethoven quartets, but by this time, HMV had signed the more prestigious Budapest String Quartet and the Virtuoso String Quartet were thereafter reduced to recording isolated movements and potboilers. (A notable exception was the Ravel Quartet, their last issued recording.) They made no recordings after 1929, although Tully Potter notes that they continued to concertize and to broadcast until their disbanding in 1936. By 1943, all of their HMV recordings had disappeared from the catalogue.
The choice of the name “Virtuoso” for the group was seen as inappropriate in some quarters. “The Gramophone,” reviewing their first recording in July, 1924, opined that they “do not, luckily, live up to their unfortunately chosen name. (A quartet, as I once remarked before, is essentially a republic, not a monarchy, and artists who call themselves virtuosi are invariably petty monarchs.) This is an excellent and competent body of players…” Both Hayward and Sharpe, as mentioned above, had localized reputations as solo artists, which could possibly have accounted for the name, but in any case this was disguised from the record-buying public by the fact that the players’ names never appeared on the labels! (They were usually credited, however, in the liner notes of the albums.)
For this discography I have loosely taken as a model the excellent Flonzaley Quartet discography by Jon Samuels, published in the May 1988 issue of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ “ARSC Journal” (Vol. 19, No. 1). The format is in three large sections. In the first, recordings are listed chronologically by session (i.e., a different session for each different date). Each session is divided into three columns, the first for the matrix and take numbers (with issued takes being underlined ), the second for the original issue number (if the recording was actually released), and the last for the composer and work (and parts of movements, if applicable). The location of the recording, and actual studio used (if known) is also indicated following the session number and recording date. All of the Virtuoso String Quartet’s recordings were made for HMV in England. Matrix numbers beginning with “Bb” are 10-inch matrices; those beginning with “Cc” are 12-inch matrices. To compile this listing I have relied on Alan Kelly’s HMV matrix listings of the Bb/Cc series (1921-30), self-published by Mr. Kelly as a CD-ROM. (For more information about the files of Alan Kelly, whose comprehensive research into The Gramophone Company’s output will likely remain unparalleled, visit www.normanfield.com/kelly.htm.)
The second section is a combination index (by composer) and complete issue listing. Each work is listed with a reference to the session number(s) in Section I that produced the recording, with session numbers yielding issued takes being underlined. This is followed, for issued recordings, by the HMV issue number, number of sides and coupling; album set number (if any); the dates of issue and of deletion; automatic sequence coupling numbers (if any); the American Victor issue number; and a reference to online sites where the recording may be heard and/or downloaded. The third section is a chronological listing of issued recordings, including side layouts for multi-movement works. For issues of shorter works I have given the titles of the pieces as they appear on the labels.
HMV records by the Virtuoso String Quartet were issued in three coupling series. The earlier issues (up to March, 1927) were in the black label “D” series, a mid- price (as we would call it today) line somewhat cheaper than the premium-priced red label series but more expensive than the plum label “C” (12-inch) and “B” (10-inch) series which functioned as HMV’s popular line. By December, 1927, the Virtuoso String Quartet’s recordings were being issued in these cheaper series. For the issue and deletion dates of these releases I have relied on the discographies of the “C” series (by Frank Andrews and Michael Smith) and the “D” series (by Michael Smith), published by the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society ( www.clpgs.org.uk ). There is also a “B” series discography (by Frank Andrews and Ernie Bayly), but I never bothered to acquire it as I did the other two; my thanks therefore go to Robert Girling, the publications director of the CLPGS, for kindly supplying me with the issue and deletion dates for the three Virtuoso String Quartet releases in the “B” series.
A word about HMV’s album series: The Gramophone Company had been producing album sets almost from their earliest days, primarily of “complete” operas and other large vocal works, but it was only towards the end of 1926 that HMV seems to have decided to have an “Album Series of Complete Works” in a numbered sequence to keep track of this growing branch of their operations. Album numbers never appeared on the labels of the records themselves, merely on the album containers, and (from 1929) in the HMV catalogues. The first 25 or so of these numbers seem to have been assigned retroactively to sets in their existing catalogue in 1926, as is evident when one arranges the titles of these 25 sets in numerical order, for the sequence is not chronological – indeed, acoustical and electrical sets are intermixed. The progression seems to be: opera, operetta (Nos. 4 to 12 are Gilbert & Sullivan sets, in alphabetical order), symphonies, chamber music, piano music, miscellaneous. Then with No. 26 the sets become chronological. Two of the Virtuoso String Quartet’s sets are among these first 25 sets: the Franck Quartet (No. 18) and the Debussy (No. 19). (My copies of these two albums have no set number anywhere on them, which is another reason I believe the numbers were assigned after the fact.) The criterion for inclusion within the album set series seems to have been works requiring four or more records (six or more in the case of the existing acoustical sets).
HMV’s album set series certainly is a subject worthy of further research.
Automatic sequence couplings designed for use with HMV’s automatic changer mechanisms were introduced in 1928, the numbers in all series beginning at 7000. None of the Virtuoso String Quartet’s recordings then in the catalogue were given automatic couplings, however. The Ravel Quartet, issued in 1931, was released in standard and automatic couplings simultaneously. Then, in 1933, a new style of changer mechanism was introduced, necessitating reissues of those sets already on the catalogue with a different coupling to accomodate the new mechanism. This accounts for there being two sets of automatic sequence couplings for the Ravel Quartet. At about the same time the older sets in the “D” series were also given automatic couplings, presumably for the new mechanism.
There were two basic types of automatic couplings:
1) the “slide” automatic, where a set of four records, for example, would have sides 1 and 5 coupled, 2 and 6, etc. It is called “slide” because the records were placed on the turntable before play with side 1 on top, and the records allowed to slide off after play into a padded drawer, until they were all finished, then the stack retrieved and turned over with side 5 on top;
2) the “drop” automatic, where the same set of four records would have sides 1 and 8 coupled, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5. The records would drop from a higher point onto the turntable, and after play, the stack would be turned over and played in reverse order. The existence of two types of automatic couplings means that the odd-side fillers for affected sets could have been on either the first record of a set (for “drop” automatic” sets) or the last record (for “slide automatic” sets), and, since I have no way of knowing which type of coupling HMV used at which time, I have indicated both possible numbers for filler sides in the issue listing.
In the United States, HMV recordings were issued by Victor, through an exclusive licensing arrangement between the two companies that lasted until 1957. The merest handful of Virtuoso String Quartet sides, 13 in total, were issued by Victor; the oddest of these issues being of the piece formerly known as “Haydn’s Serenade” (actually by Hoffstetter) which was issued as part of a Black Label set entitled “Dinner Music – Famous Serenades”! The remaining Victor releases were Red Seal records, including one release in the Victor Musical Masterpiece album series (with an M- prefix for manual coupling, and an AM- prefix for “slide” automatic).
There are 90 total issued sides by the Virtuoso String Quartet, and of these, some 60 are audible online as free downloads from various places. My own blog, “The Shellackophile” (shellackophile.blogspot.com) is one of these, as is Damian Rogan’s site, “Damian’s 78s” ( www.damians78s.co.uk ). In both cases the ZIPped files must be downloaded to your computer for listening. There is also a large collection (40 sides) available at the invaluable site hosted by the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM) ( www.charm.rhul.ac.uk ), where the recordings may either be downloaded or listened to with their online player. There are some overlaps between what CHARM has and what Damian and I have. With CHARM, extended works must be heard one side at a time, whereas with mine and Damian’s transfers the sides are joined for continuous play.
The discography is located here.