Juilliard String Quartet = BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2; BARTOK: String Quartet No. 3; DVORAK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American” – Juilliard String Quartet -Sony 19439858752 (3/4/21) 70:00 *****
The present recording marks the 75thanniversary of the Juilliard String Quartet, founded in 1946 at the suggestion of William Schuman, composer and school president. Early in their recording career, 1950, the Juilliard ensemble documented the cycle of six quartets by Bela Bartok, so to perform theThird Quartet(rec. May 25-28 2019) extends a long, time-honored tradition.
Beethoven embarked on his Op. 59 quartets at the instigation of his benefactor Count Rasumovsky, a fine violinist who happened to serve as the Russian ambassador to Vienna. Rasumovsky supported and performed with the Schuppanzigh Quartet, who had given premieres of several of Beethoven’s quartets. Closely akin in time and in spirit to the Eroica Symphony, the E Minor Quartetopens with two resounding chords – tonic and dominant – that urge a sense of tension, since the semitonal relationship of E Minor and F Major (and the C -B and later E-D#) will compete throughout. These incremental conflicts drive to a massive climax in C Major. The restive sounds and silences produce a symphonic effect much in harmony with the vast scope of Symphony No. 3; and the Juilliard ensemble draws out the mesmerizing drama in a huge arch, by having repeated the exposition and development sections.
The succeeding Molto Adagio, “to be played with great feeling,” offers a dramatic contrast, claiming (by Carl Czerny) to be Beethoven’s “contemplating the stars of the sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” The numinous rapture of the music relieves somewhat – do not overlook the music’s chromatics that exploit the same E-D# interval- the grueling tensions of the opening Allegro,and each of the Juilliard members gets to inject moments of individual color. Rasumovsky had stipulated that Beethoven employ a Theme Russein each of the quartets, and the ensuing Allegrettodoes contain in the Trio in E Major a tune later used by Mussorgsky for Boris Gudonov. The semitonal tension again presents itself, here in a vein of learned humor in lush counterpoint. The twice appearance of the Trio section may well have influenced Robert Schumann’s sense of structure. The key of E Minor seems to have had for Beethoven a demand for repetition, so the lastmovement, Finale – Prestoinsists that what might have been a pure rondo form be interrupted, C Major versus E Minor, in a Slavic, galloping whirl that nods to Haydn in its broad impishness. The incisive attacks by Areta Zhulla, first violin, propel a performance that gathers a potent momentum. The coda, even more manic, concludes with a symphonic thump.
The musical context shifts significantly with the opening of Bela Bartok’s 1927 String Quartet No. 3, an idiosyncratic masterpiece of structural economy. The apocryphal context claims that Bartok had been inspired by having heard Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. Like Beethoven, Bartok employs a small number of motivic elements that regroup and rearrange themselves in perpetual evolution. Divided into four sections, the work progresses as a unified whole, often bursting with gypsy or Magyar cells that indulge dissonance and polyphony at will. Primitive rhythmic impulses play against old Church modes in free but stringent association. The demands on the players – glissandi, col legnoeffects, sul ponticello, high trills and pizzicatos quickly altered with arco application – somehow collaborate into fifteen minutes of brilliant, if unnerving, dance and deep meditation. How did Bartok so well express himself: “I do not care to subscribe to any of the accepted musical tendencies. . .my ideal is a well-measured balance of these elements.” So it has been written, and so has it been done.
Like Bartok, Antonin Dvorak felt compelled to seek inspiration in the native soil for the musical elements that define his eminently melodic style. His 1894 Quartet in F Majorcombines both American and Bohemian impulses into an enchanted whole, the work itself created in less than two weeks. If we have not taken full note of Juilliard violist Roger Tapping, his silken art shines in this music, especially considering that the viola had been Dvorak’s chosen instrument. The opening Allegro ma non troppoflows seamlessly, utilizing pentatonic motifs endemic in American folk music. The sheer poignancy of theLentonever fails to arrest our imagination, inspired doubtless by Dvorak’s innate love of the natural landscape. First violin Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween engage in a fine dialogue. Enjoy the trills in support of the throbbing melody, courtesy of second violin Ronald Copes. Birdsong purportedly inspired much of the buoyant Molto vivace, a scherzo in Bohemian rhythms. The Triosection emits a shimmering mystery of its own. The last movement Vivace: ma non troppoprojects a syncopated charm and energy of rural happiness and joie de vivre, and its power surges forth symphonically even as it retains its intimate connection with Nature. The middle section momentarily pauses for a hymn, especially in the cello part. The music once more resumes its spirited exuberance, with that moment of “and so, my children” that graces all late Dvorak masterworks. And so it ends, a musical and imaginative triumph on all levels.