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13.12.03

Late Pearls in a String of Quartets — by Jens Laurson

As the cycle of Beethoven String Quartets of the Juilliard String Quartet nears its end at the Library of Congress, the audience came in full force to the Coolidge Auditorium on November 21. Not having a ticket for this performance (free, like all events at the Library, but requiring a ticket through Ticketmaster, nonetheless) left me in a waiting room with about 50 other enthusiasts, also hoping that some ticket holders would not show up. Most of those who waited were seated in time. For the remainder, chairs were ready after the first piece.

That piece was the Haydn String Quartet op.55, #5 ("The Razor"). Those who saw it via the TV screen in the posh waiting room (amidst historic instruments and busts of musicians) missed out on little, since the Haydn, charming a piece as it is, was played rather sloppily and quite unimaginatively. But even when the Juilliard Quartet plays sub-par and routinely, the experience is still well worth that price of admission.

Far more interesting, this time, was the modern piece that the Juilliard throws to every concertgoer. So far I've heard Milton Babbitt, and now I was subjected to Lee Hoiby. When I coyly say "subjected," I am probably being disingenuous. I somewhat liked even the truly thorny Milton Babbitt—and compared to that Lee Hoiby is a walk on a beach. Serenade for Violin and Piano (a McKim Commission) was presented to us thanks to Brent McMunn on the Steinway and Ronald Copes on the Violin. Soft piano notes, whimsically on the upper register and responded to in the lower register start the piece, followed by a surprisingly sweet melody that seems like a piece composed 200 years ago, but askew. Rhythmic blocks enter and are ended with a rough pizzicato. From there it proceeded rather tamely and conventionally, with piano first and then both instruments, from which develops a dialog and soon gentle, even sweepingly melodic sections.

As played in the Coolidge Auditorium, it was far gentler to the conservative audience than any Bartók, Shostakovich, or Schoenberg could ever be. It showed off a virtuosity and energy on part of the violin that was well matched by the rounded sounds of the piano, often leaving the impression that much greater forces were at work than only these two instruments. This music was difficult to compare to the work of any one or two composers, which puzzled me. While it never sounded unfamiliar in style, it also did not remind me of anything in particular. Perhaps its influences were too manifold to be audible. At any rate, good enough to be attested utmost originality, while not necessarily breaking new ground. Utterly delightful was the fact that Mr. Hoiby is a composer who knows—unlike many—how (and when!) to end a piece. As it had come, so it went—short and sweet. The audience went genuinely delighted into intermission—not always the case after some of the Juilliard's modern ventures.

Beethoven's last String Quartetop.135 in F major—was the main course of the evening—and rightly so. Light moments in this work cannot hide the late Beethoven in it. For all its charm, this work is also dense enough to make one better understand the quip reported from the late Rudolf Serkin—who, when asked why he did not play any contemporary music, responded: "But I do—I play late Beethoven!"

The short fugal opening movement ("Allegro con brio") is followed by the second, titled "Adagio ma non troppo." The adagio is indeed not too slow: it whizzed by me almost unnoticed. The ensuing Allegro is a joyous rush that seems rather molto vivace—and ends in a rather strange muddle of instruments for several bars—in a manner far more repetitive than harmonic. The next movement opens almost ethereally and falls quickly into what I cannot better explain than a solid block of chromatic string advancement that loses the quality of the opening bars—only to regain them towards the end. Joel Smirnoff's inhalation becomes strangely intrusive at times during which the quartet seems as much an exercise in simultaneous breathing as an act of music making.

As with all late Beethoven, this piece, too, needs to be enjoyed from the "inside of the music"—because its superficial value does not necessarily lend itself to great listening enjoyment. Part of why late Beethoven is the beginning of modern music!? Brutal, almost jarring chord-shards open the last movement (prestissimo). Violent violin-scrubbing later in the movement is an instant reminder of the opening of the movement, but inevitably the flow of the music comes back, as if Beethoven teased, only to "play nice again." Then it delights with a short pizzicato section, and the piece is over before one knew it.

The exemplary playing by the Juilliard made this String Quartet seemed far shorter than it actually is. Unlike in some of their performances I have heard so far, they were right on target. The other audience members, as well as myself, could all tell this was a piece that the Juilliard knew well and felt more comfortable with than the Haydn. It was not the kind of routine playing that results from knowing a piece intimately, but skilled and motivated execution underpinned by a profound understanding of the work.

The performance left me excited and sad at once, looking forward to the last installment of this series on December 18th where the Beethoven Cycle of String Quartets will be brought to an end with a performance of op.130 with its more conventional ending (not "Die grosse Fuge"). Even having only come across this monumental concert series this year, I have enjoyed the opportunity to follow these works immensely and can only hope to encounter similar pleasures soon.

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