BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131; SCHUBERT: No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” – Juilliard String Quartet – Testament

by | Nov 18, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131;
SCHUBERT: No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” – Juilliard
String Quartet

Testament SBT 1373, 79:19 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:

The Juilliard String Quartet is the 1945 brain-child of Juilliard
School president William Schuman, who wanted a resident quartet that
would play the classics as well new works. When conductor Edgar
Schenckman suggested Naumberg Prize winner Robert Mann to head the
group, the idea began to crystallize, especially as Mann had his own
ideas about the rest of the personnel – excepting the viola position,
eventually filled by Ralph Hillyer, who had played violin under
Koussevitzky in Boston. Since 1946, the year of the ensemble’s debut,
they have played 600 works from the repertory, including some sixty
premieres. The two inscriptions on this disc, from 1959 (Schubert) and
1960 (Beethoven), are part of a small repertory the Juilliard Quartet
inscribed for RCA Records, when Isidore Cohen played second violin, and
Claus Adam played cello.

Robert Mann once commented that the Juilliard Quartet members, players
and composers themselves, made a good mix: “One of us was especially
interested in rhythm and dynamics; another would concern himself with
architecture; one cared about spirit, and one about functional musical
problems.” The resultant alchemy were performances of studied depth and
intense, driven concentration. The CBS set of the complete Bartok
Quartets became a classic literally upon its issue around 1950. Here,
in the music of late Beethoven, the severity of their analytical
approach can be felt from the opening bars. The sense of Beethoven’s
inwardness, even in the throes of the driven Presto movement, never
relaxes. The whiplash momentum between Mann and Cohen, interrupted by
syncopations and pizzicati from Adam and Hillyer, hones the music to a
fine edginess, making the downshift to the otherworldly Adagio quasi un
poco andante particularly affecting. The Juilliard seems to insist on
the clarity of Beethoven’s counterpoint; subsequently, the thinner
textures reveal the radical harmonic tensions Beethoven explores. One
leaves this recording with the strong sense of its being one approach,
and that many other perspectives on this music are still possible.
Schubert’s pungent morbidity drives the Juilliard’s interpretation
along impassioned but objective lines, with little indulgence into
romantic rhetoric. A visceral account, but to me aloof, and guided as
much by architecture as by virtuoso velocity.  Strong readings of
two classics by a group with its own musical stamp.

–Gary Lemco

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