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Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress

This evening the Juilliard String Quartet was again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress (see my post on their last performance on October 22). This is part of the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts hosted by the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C. There were no special, oversized violas for tonight's program, so I think that the quartet was once again performing on the matched set of Stradivari instruments, donated to the Library in 1934 by Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall.

Béla BartókThe program began with an absolutely stellar performance of Béla Bartók's String Quartet no. 1 (op. 7). The Juilliard Quartet was the first group in the United States to play all six of the Bartók string quartets, in 1949, and the various members have made three recordings of the these important works, starting with the first recording in 1950. Not only can a listener trace the progress of Bartók's musical style over the course of the six quartets, but you get a chance to hear some of the best music the 20th century had to offer. In fact, it is really not an exaggeration to say that, by composing them, Bartók did a lot to preserve the string quartet as a modern genre. I expected the Juilliard to give a fine performance of Bartók, given the group's history, but I was truly astounded by the beauty of this performance. At this point in his life (1907-1910), Bartók was still composing in a surprisingly tonal, or post-Romantic, style. However, there are moments of tension and dissonance in the piece that already were becoming part of his vocabulary. Furthermore, the influence of Hungarian folk music is felt strongly in this quartet for the first time, as Bartók's friend Zóltan Kódaly noted. Bartók and Kódaly at this point were preparing their study and collection of Hungarian folk melodies, eventually a total of over 100,000 of them (see the introduction to Hungarian Folk Songs). If you want to learn more about Hungarian folk song, take a look at Zoltán Bodolai's The Timeless Nation: The History, Literature, Music, Art and Folklore of the Hungarian Nation (1978), available online among the incredible collection of resources from the Corvinus Library of Hungarian History.

This was followed by another piece by Milton Babbitt, the Clarinet Quintet, featuring guest clarinettist Charles Neidich. This piece was premiered by the Juilliard Quartet and Mr. Neidich, to whom the composer dedicated it, for the quartet's 50th anniversary in 1996. It's a slightly more melodic piece than what was on Wednesday's program, but the effect of discombobulation was basically the same. Between the wild bobbing of Mr. Neidich's head and the obvious foot tapping of members of the quartet, it was obvious that the shifting rhythm of the piece is difficult to coordinate. It is one long movement, which is rather disconcertingly monochromatic. (For an older assessment of Babbitt's work, Greg Sandow has made available online his article The Fine Madness of Milton Babbitt, from The Village Voice, in 1982.)

The second half of the concert was the next installment of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of the entire cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartets, in celebration of its 40th anniversary at the Library of Congress: the String Quartet no. 14 in C# Minor, op. 131. The quartet's performance was excellent, but the Bartók had already been the high point of the concert. Op. 131 was completed in 1826, just a year before Beethoven's death, and is one of the longest string quartets he wrote: it is divided into seven movements and takes about 40 minutes to perform. Beethoven's study of counterpoint, which I discussed in relation to Wednesday's performance of op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge, is also in evidence. The opening of the first movement features the fugal entrance of the four parts on a solemn, tragic melodic subject. This learned style is in contrast to a sort of graceful folk sound featured in the third movement (Allegro moderato) and the Haydnesque humor of the fifth movement(Presto). In the fourth movement (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile) the pizzicato sforzandos were very accurate, loud, and pleasing to hear, as was the high playing of the first violin in the Presto. All in all, this was again a most pleasing concert at the Library of Congress.

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