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Juilliard Quartet Back in Washington

Photo of Juilliard String Quartet by Nana Watanabe/SONY Classical
Juilliard String Quartet, photo by Nana Watanabe/SONY Classical
These days the Juilliard Quartet trades mostly on its history, having created in its glory years, the post-WWII decades, a distinctive American string quartet sound. None of the original members are left, after the 1997 retirement of its tireless leader, Robert Mann, but the Juilliard continues to play around the world, generally drawing huge crowds. At their Sunday evening concert on the free weekly series at the National Gallery of Art, over 100 people had to be turned away for lack of seating. It was the quartet's first appearance in Washington since 2006, after many years of giving regular concerts as part of a residency at the Library of Congress, and there was a sense of pent-up hunger for a familiar sound. If the quartet wants to come back to Washington for a regular engagement, perhaps a larger venue will come forward to make it happen.

Juilliard Quartet:
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Verdi, op. 68

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Carter, No. 2

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Complete Beethoven
The concert's first half consisted of some unfamiliar repertoire, both of which come from the Juilliard's extensive discography. Giuseppe Verdi composed only one string quartet (E minor, op. 68), almost by accident. It is hardly a great piece, but it is rewarding to hear it dusted off once in a while, even if the Juilliard's rendition was marred by a few shortcomings (Pierre Gervasoni noted similar problems at the Juilliard's Paris concert in Le Monde). The dramatic first movement came off a little harried, with the overall impression of furious string scrubbing and even some squeaks. The tarantella-like third movement featured some slightly rough off-the-string playing from first violinist Joel Smirnoff, although the trio's cello solo was elegantly played by Joel Krosnick. The high point was the second-movement Andantino, especially the sly waltz in tragic tone that opens and closes it. The fourth movement, a fugue with a subject that is a stream of fast notes, is not quite as accomplished as Verdi's best assay of the contrapuntal process, the one that concludes his final opera, Falstaff.

The quartet has been celebrating the Elliott Carter centennial year with performances of the American composer's second string quartet, and one hopes that their recording of his first four quartets will soon be re-released. Carter is, in one sense, the reverse of Verdi, a renowned composer of instrumental music who has composed only one opera. Although Carter has described his second quartet as a "four-way conversation," the average listener might instead characterize it mostly as four people speaking simultaneously about unrelated subjects, often in different time signatures. The timing of the work offers countless challenges, as witnessed by the furious counting of beats seen on the lips of cellist Joel Krosnick. Some sections were particularly effective, including what might be called a "night music" passage, con sordini, and the tender opening of the slow movement, which devolved into howls of agony in the middle section. Of the three cadenzas that offer transitions from movement to movement, the best was the extended one for the first violin, where Smirnoff gave a forceful but quite lovely tone.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Juilliard String Quartet's Intricate Discourse (Washington Post, February 19)
It makes me wistful to recall that some of the earliest concerts we reviewed here at Ionarts were from the 40th anniversary year (2002-2003) of the Juilliard Quartet's residency at the Library of Congress, during which they played all of the Beethoven quartets, one per concert in series, combined with contemporary works. So, of course, the evening would not be complete without one of the Beethoven quartets, in this case, the last of the Razumovsky quartets (op. 59, no. 3 -- online score). The enigmatic slow opening of this piece made a nice bridge from the Carter, leading into an exalted reading of the heroic Allegro vivace.

As with the Verdi and Carter, it was the slow movement that impressed most, set at just the right tempo to accommodate the graceful arches of its tragic melody. It was introspective, stretched with the push and pull of sensitive playing, not polished to the sheen of perfection associated with the Emerson Quartet, for example. The performance was rounded out by a smooth reading of the sentimental minuet, never jagged. Again the program was unified, as Beethoven ends this quartet with a fugue, as Verdi had done at the opening of the program, also with a subject of mostly running notes. All in all, this was a concert that impressed not necessarily because every note was perfectly in place, but more because of a sense of vision, awareness of grand form, not only within each work but across them.

Upcoming free concerts at the National Gallery of Art include the National Gallery Chamber Players Piano Trio (February 24, 6:30 pm) and a noontime concert of music by William Grant Still, featuring soprano Celeste Headlee and pianist Danielle DeSwert (February 27, 12:10 pm), in honor of Black History Month.

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