in: Reviews

October 22, 2014

Thistles Abounding: Juilliard String Quartet

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Musical snapshots of Vienna a century apart were presented Saturday night in Jordan Hall by the venerable Juilliard String Quartet in a Celebrity Series concert of rugged beauty.

Founded in 1946, the Juilliard String Quartet remain committed to literature both old and new. Thanks to their residency at there, they influence future generations of string quartets through teaching, while touring brings their particular sound and skills to audiences worldwide. The founders made it their goal to “play new works as if they were established masterpieces and established masterpieces as if they were new.” Today’s members—violinists Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes, violist Roger Tapping, and cellist Joel Krosnick—continue to fulfill that mission admirably and this performance proved it.

The program opened with Anton Webern’s Five Movements (1909), written after the composer’s studies with Schoenberg. Each movement has its own character. Heftig bewegt is a combination of modern sounds and a lushly romantic phrase; Sehr langsam is an exercise in stretching out the temporal frame of musical meaning; Sehr lebhaft is a little scamper; Sehr langsam presents bells in the distance, a foghorn, then quiescence; and In zarter Bewegnung is a study in decline and fall. Overall, this quartet-in-all-but-name is a playful combination: schmaltz rolled in nettles. (Fortunately, I like nettles.) The Juilliard Quartet reveled in the rounded fattiness and the tart astringency alike.

The program continued with Alban Berg’s String Quartet Op. 3 (1910). In two movements (Langsam and Mässige viertel) and also composed in the shadow of Schoenberg, it contains an entire cosmos, and is a handbook of technique and gestures. Rhetorical and rhapsodic, languorous and frenzied, this tautly delineated music takes advantage of glissando and sul ponticello. Played with command and passion, as here, the prickles and burs are not irritants but an integral part of the music’s charm.

Julliard Quartet at Jordan Hall (Robert Torres photo)

Julliard Quartet at Jordan Hall (Robert Torres photo)

Lin spoke from the stage to introduce the Webern and Krosnick the Berg; manifest throughout was the love they have for this music.

Following intermission we returned to an earlier time in Vienna with Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D.810, Death and the Maiden. Romantic rubato used prudently gave this piece an expansive flair contrasting with the compression heard earlier. The reading was youthful and fresh, reminding us that this was once new music too. The piece’s folkloric elements were brought into prominence, rather than the smoothed edges of refinement we often hear now in performances of Schubert. A sharp, spiky pulchritude. There was no speaking beforehand, missing an opportunity for us to hear about their engagement with this music and their goals in renewing our experience with the masterpiece.

As an encore the Julliard offered a movement from Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33 No. 5.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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