Mellowing Out 

I can still remember the first time I encountered the Juilliard String Quartet. After an appearance of the Hungarian String Quartet at my alma mater, Southwestern in Memphis, had kindled an interest in a musical form that had previously left me cold, a college chum suggested I listen to performances of the Bartok quartets recorded by the Juilliard ensemble. To be frank, I hated them, but the Juilliard String Quartet was another matter. Even then, I could tell that this was brash, on-edge playing. It was full of movement, with a layered sound that sucked you in and pushed you around, making you hear the music from a multitude of angles. Like a potent, young red wine, the performances of the Juilliard crew had as much edge as body.

My, how mellow the Juilliard’s wine has become. The group is not yet past its prime, but, if last Saturday’s Ryman Auditorium concert is any guide, it should be savored soon. The opening Haydn Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 50 no. 3, was a pointed example of how the Juilliard’s style seems to have changed as the ensemble has aged. Given that Haydn’s music is much more staid than the works usually associated with the Juilliard’s repertoire, this performance had an almost Brahmsian fullness in its autumnal approach. This was especially noticeable in the second-movement Andante piu tosto allegretto. The phrasing was so exceptionally subtle and the approach so lacking in grit that the music was transformed—even so early in the concert—into a valedictory encore. It had a peculiar poignancy, but it also had some very squally playing on the part of first violinist Robert Mann.

Mann’s problems continued into the third movement, an Allegretto minuet that featured some of the least satisfying playing of the evening. Given the fact that Haydn’s minuets smack more of the countryside than of the drawing room, the dancers at this fête gallante seemed unable to manage the crisp steps and settled instead for a refined shuffle. The edginess of the old Juilliard, alas, became sloppiness here. Mann was guilty of some wavering playing, and his cohorts echoed his lack of precision with phrases that were frequently cut short in the most ham-handed manner.

Live concerts cannot be expected to display the perfection of recordings, but the number of wrong notes throughout the Haydn was on the high side of acceptable. Throughout the last-movement Presto, almost all the players experienced recurring pitch problems. Although the phrasing became much more accurate, it was at the expense of the music’s joy. It was a very sedate Presto—slow but not out of line—leading me to suspect the beginnings of oxidation in this wine.

Having said my piece about the Bartok quartets above, let me make a partial exception for the Quartet no. 5. I have always felt that the exquisite detail and instrumental color of the fifth quartet serve this work’s musical ideas better than the other quartets. I also feel that Bartok managed to invest this particular work with some of the approachability of his orchestral scores. However, I still find myself wishing that he had expanded this music into a full-dress symphonic work—or at the very least a chamber symphony for string orchestra.

The Juilliard folks made the fur fly here—literally; I thought that the players would have to use alternate bows for the rest of the concert, so much horsehair was lost. For all the fiddling, though, more power was still needed: Except for the moody second movement, this is music of cinematic size, and frequently the Juilliard folks came up just short of producing rafter-ringing sound. Only in the fourth-movement Andante did they seem to gel into a committed whole. They read the score less and began allowing themselves to be swept up by the music.

The quartet carried this enthusisam forward into the last-movement Allegro vivace. Whereas in other parts of the performance Robert Mann’s continuing problems with accuracy affected the other members of the group, everyone approached top form here. Col legno effects were particularly good, as were the ditzy piss-elegant passages toward the end. The droll Haydn-esque interlude before the end made the proper effect, but the great push in the final passages still needed more strength. This was certainly not a “provincial performance”—with Bartok, that would be an oxymoron—but it didn’t come up to the level that one expects of the Juilliard String Quartet performing Bartok.

When the piano was wheeled onstage for the Schumann Piano Quintet, something else must have been brought out with it. Perhaps it was the impetus of Ursula Oppens’ lightning-fast performance at the keyboard; perhaps it was the challenge of the piece. Whatever it was, everyone seemed invigorated. There were still problems: Mann muffed notes at the beginning of the second movement, the piano passages in many parts of the first movement were all but inaudible, and the finale was plagued by uncoordinated entrances. But these were more than compensated for by Juilliardian grit and risk-taking.

The fast parts were very fast. The players paid particular attention to phrase and dynamic, and the flow of the music was warm and romantic, fully illuminating everything that Schumann’s music affords. I was particularly taken with the on-the edge approach to the final pages of the finale. The famous fugato passage at the end frequently approached meltdown, but the performers always managed to draw it back in line at the last moment, providing the most exciting playing of the concert.

I might add that some of the problems with this performance were noted by the audience. This is the first time in my memory that members of the audience did not grant the [famous group not from here] the expected instant standing ovation. Only after the performers had returned to the stage twice did people begin to straggle to their feet. If I was somewhat disappointed that the performance lacked a youthful brashness, I was pleased at the audience’s response.

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