Juilliard String Quartet’s Artistry Undimmed

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Carter, and Beethoven: Juilliard String Quartet, Meany Hall, Seattle, 6.2.2013 (BJ)

There are string quartets that play together too long for the health and spontaneity of their music-making. I think most particularly of the storied Amadeus Quartet, whose many years playing the same repertoire with unchanged membership declined into performances that sometimes seemed to be played in their sleep. But in its most recent appearance in the University of Washington’s chamber-music series, the Juilliard String Quartet demonstrated resoundingly that it has lost nothing of its spontaneity, or of its unexcelled authority as an exponent of music both old and new, in the course of a glorious 67-year career.

There have, of course, been a few changes of personnel, and Samuel Rhodes, the quartet’s violist for the last 44 years, steps down at the end of this season. But, rather as a person preserves individuality despite the constant replacement of cells, the group as a whole has kept its strongly recognizable musical character in place. It is a character marked by high-octane verve, yet never lacking in subtlety or warmth.

The first half-hour of this concert offered no hint of the rigors that were to come. The D-major Quartet, K. 575, is perhaps the least emotionally complex of Mozart’s ten mature quartets, and it received a performance of the utmost suavity. Joseph Lin, who joined the Juilliard in 2011, unfurled a lustrous first-violin line with exactly that trademark blend of vigor and expressive grace. Second violinist Ronald Copes and violist Rhodes kept the inner parts airy and well balanced, and Joel Krosnick, himself approaching his 40th anniversary in the cello chair, tackled the prominent part Mozart wrote for his patron, the King of Prussia, with wonderfully rich tone and sumptuous phrasing.

Actually, “rigor” may not be the right word to describe the next work on the program. The String Quartet No. 5 that the recently deceased Elliott Carter composed in 1895, when he was a mere 86 years old, has, like most of his music, an uncompromisingly intellectual facade. But it is also leavened with touches of humor, especially through the deadpan use of pizzicato, and the texture comes nowhere near the formidable textural and rhythmic complexity of his Quartet No. 1, which preceded it by more than four decades, and which remains in my judgement the greatest of his works.

No. 5 is laid out as a sort of instrumental conversation, in which the players “discuss in different ways what has been played and what will be played.” The idea is not a new one—Charles Ives did something similar exactly a century ago in his Second String Quartet—but Carter’s handling of it seems to me to miss the human charm Ives achieved. Carter’s musical materials, moreover, are not characterful enough to make the form readily perceptible to the ear—the piece having started, there seemed no reason, even in this obviously dedicated performance, why it should stop just when it did, or for that matter ever.

In contrast with Carter’s piece, Beethoven’s C-sharp-minor Quartet, Op. 131, arguably the greatest of his sixteen, inhabits a musical world where actions have clearly heard consequences. The Juilliarders gave it a performance that combined the clearest possible logic with ample warmth and lyricism. And in the harrowing finale, with no thought for “pretty sounds,” the players dug into their strings with palpable savagery, bringing the evening to a close of jaw-dropping intensity and power.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.