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That's All, Folks!

This is a review of a concert on December 18, 2003.

The culmination of the Beethoven String Quartet Cycle at the Library of Congress with the Juilliard String Quartet took place on December 18 in the Coolidge Auditorium with the Stradivari Anniversary Concert. As we read in the program notes, "Gertrude Clarke Whittall's 1935 donation to the Library of five Stradivari instruments was followed shortly thereafter by an endowment to provide for their care and use. The foundation, which built the Whittall Pavilion in 1938 to house the instruments, also enables the resident quartet to perform on them and provides for the acquisition of large collections of music and individual rare manuscripts."

Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) made his superb string instruments around the turn of the 17th century, and his instruments bear individual names. Among the instruments given by Mrs. Whittall are the "Betts" violin from 1704 (~1700–1725 being the best period of his violin making), the "Castelbarco" violin (1699) and cello (1697), the "Cassavetti" viola (1727), and the "Ward" violin from 1700. "Five Tourte bows accompanied the instruments. Every year, the foundation [...] presents a concert—featuring the Strads and played by the Library's quartet-in-residence—to commemorate the death anniversary of Antonio Stradivari, who died on December 18, 1737." (The Juilliard String Quartet, by the way, always fiddle around with these instruments—not only during this concert.)

Scientists have recently proposed the hypothesis that the elusive reason for the unique quality of these instruments was a series of extremely cold winters and unusually cool summers (a "mini-Ice Age") over two decades in the late 17th century. This resulted in a slower growth of trees and a higher density of the wood, culminating in the unique and extraordinary tone that a Stradivari violin produces. [See John Pickrell, Did "Little Ice Age" Create Stradivarius Violins' Famous Tone?, January 7, from National Geographic News. If you read science, you can also consult the article that originally presented the research: Lloyd Burckle and Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Stradivari, Violins, Tree Rings, and the Maunder Minimum: A Hypothesis, in Dendrochronologia 21/1 (2003): 41–45.—CTD]

The concert featured just two works, the Beethoven String Quartet, op.130, in B-flat Major and the grand String Quintet in C Major, D.956, by Franz Schubert. As much as I was delighted to find the rewarding Schubert on the program, I have to admit that I missed the modern "sandwich-filler." Indeed, I was disappointed that the Juilliard were not trying to edify and enrich us (against our will?) with some piece that was modern and off the beaten path. Even when thorny and of dubiously gratifying nature, they have become quite dear to me and to my ears.

The Beethoven quartet, already presented at the concert on October 22nd (see the Ionarts review from October 22), was given in its more conventional form with the Rondo as the last movement—instead of the original form with Die Grosse Fuge as the final piece. The latter was cut by Beethoven after he was persuaded to do so by his friends and publisher, reconstituting the quartet with the shorter finale, just months before his death.

The playing in the filled hall commenced, full of feeling, as the Adagio ma non troppo flowed seamlessly into the first movement's Allegro. A little uncleanness did not detract, especially as the first of two rondos arrived after much tuning of the quartet's instruments had spoiled our ears. Now—as at its first performance on March 21, 1826 (where it had to be encored)—it delighted the audience. Lively and joyous, the opening figure of the music proceeds swiftly, with a few sprightly bars of pizzicato to loosen things up. The Andante con moto ma non troppo passes, as does the dance-like fourth movement (Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai). It seems more difficult now to understand the immediate enthusiasm that this movement received at its premiere, and it also fails to leave me with an appreciation for German dancing of the time.

However, the Cavatina (Adagio molto espresivo) is stunning! First received lukewarmly, as the program tells us, it is nothing now but charming and moving. Were slow movements not as popular almost two centuries ago? (One thinks of the divine second movement, Adagio non troppo), in Brahms's 2nd Symphony, which no one much cared for at its first offering on December 30th, 1877.) Joel Smirnoff produced a rather whimsical tone in this movement, very cleanly played (perhaps the tempo helped) and altogether a delight. The entire quartet rose to the occasion of this lovely movement and most of the audience was spellbound.

The finale is a cute (little) thing compared to the overpowering, awkward, and dryish Grosse Fuge. Instead of op.133, we have something lighthearted and nice. "Harmless" would be unduly negative, although it comes to mind compared to its predecessor as the closing of this quartet. Ludwig van Beethoven announces the end of this piece from a mile away (it really is still a mile away) . . . and its energy rewards us for what is otherwise well described as "long!"

I suppose the quartet could have been executed with more care, but altogether this part of the concert was a welcome and uplifting capstone, not only to op.130, but to the entire Beethoven String Quartet Cycle coming to its conclusion in celebration of the Juilliard's 40th anniversary as the String Quartet in residence at the Library of Congress.

After the intermission, in which most people were more excited about the Beethoven than I, came what turned out to be the spellbinding event not only of the evening, but really of the series of concerts that I have been to since October. The Juilliard with the help of cellist Marcy Rosen gave us the "Schubert Quartet for Five Instruments," the String Quintet, D.956.

The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) starts out slowly until it picks up a little speed after the first common crescendo. Two cellos, of course, are better than one—because now Joel Krosnick had competition and immediately responded to it. He slouched a bit less and even curiously peeked from behind his cello over to Mme. Rosen. The latter had the part that carried the melody in a sweet tenor line, while the former provided for the bass. Viola player Samuel Rhodes performed lonely pizzicati, sitting all the way to the right edge—his body turned away a bit from the other four, as if perturbed that he didn't get a viola-buddy.

The interpretations that shot through my mind while listening might have resulted from the lighthearted character of the music (without ever being shallow)—a truly enjoyable affair—especially considering that it was written just weeks before rigor mortis beset Schubert's body. For instance, as my eye wandered, it latched onto the wardrobe presented by Marcy Rosen. She appeared in a curious turquoise-purple sweater of sorts, to which seemed to be attached a cape that, lifelessly draped over the chair, resembles a rather hungover bat that has accidentally flown into an 80s makeup cabinet. The rest of the dress was kindly hidden by the bipartite forces of her cello and Mr. Rhodes's body.

However, the playing was wonderful and faultless; viola and first cello were making wonderful music, the violins answering duly until this game commenced in the reverse, the violins making conversation while cello and viola respond. The ensuing Adagio with its long notes and plucked bass line made for welcome progress after a long first movement. The playing continued to be immaculate. Suddenly, within the Adagio the music gets rather wild, offering hard work for the first cello (Mme. Rosen and her bat mastered it effectually) before the seas calm again. A very gentle passage brings out lyrical (I overheard "boring" from less sensitively attuned listeners) elements with long pizzicato-dominated passages.

Appropriately, the third movement (Scherzo: Presto ~ Trio: Andante Sostenuto) jolted the audience, some of whom seemed to think the Quintet (barely half of it played) evening-filling already. The trio in this movement takes over and re-sedates the recently awoken with its mellow character. The repeated four-note figure that dominates the trio ends it in a muscular fashion worthy of any finale and makes way for the actual last movement, the Allegretto. I gently woke my neighbor and listened myself with a concentration not usual for me when attending chamber concerts with late Classical or early Romantic repertoire. Thus at least two listeners fully appreciated the joyous and entertaining nature of this movement. Closing rapture gathered speed and upped the decibel level.

Mr. Smirnoff, in his unique fashion, dangled on his chair like an electrocuted bass, feet off the ground, playing excitedly, barely balancing himself at the middle of both body and chair. The playing continued to be blemish-free and only made it easier to enjoy every note in this masterpiece that is perhaps less often heard than it deserves. The last note barely evaporated into the Coolidge Auditorium's air when the audience burst into instant and truly enthusiastic applause. Standing ovations—for the Schubert, surely, but also for all the preceding concerts from two years in which the Juilliard has delighted Washingtonians (not usually known for extensive ovations) with great music.

Leaving that night, it was difficult to think of a more worthy and moving end to this series, and I doubt anyone went home untouched. Now we have only to ask ourselves what more there might be to come. My New Year's resolution shall be to find out.

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