Juilliard String Quartet in New Fragments from Mario Davidovsky

United StatesUnited States Mendelssohn, Davidovsky, Beethoven: Juilliard String Quartet (members), Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 6.2.2017. (BH)

Mendelssohn – String Quartet in A minor, Op.13

Mario Davidovsky – Fragments: String Quartet No. 6 (2016, NY premiere)

Beethoven – String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op.130 with Grosse Fuge

“It’s like a lot like a highly functioning basketball team,” said cellist Astrid Schween, talking about string quartet dynamics in a 2016 interview in The Juilliard Journal. If that is true, she might be considered for Most Valuable Player in this concert by the Juilliard String Quartet, of which is cellist. Schween, formerly of the highly regarded Lark Quartet, is the newest member of one of the most venerable string quartets in the world, in its 70th anniversary season. And if this concert—at Alice Tully Hall, and part of Juilliard’s Daniel Seidenberg Faculty Recital series—is an indication, she (and her colleagues) made the right decision.

The other news of the night was a new quartet by Mario Davidovsky, who turns 83 in March. In the program notes, the composer describes “broken (and scattered) parts that, moved and processed by some creative force, can aggregate to become ‘something’…much of the score is intensely pointillistic.” The effect is exhilarating, and one muses on Elliott Carter, who wrote his fifth and final string quartet at the age of 87. Davidovsky’s entertaining opus shares a similar quicksilver spirit, the feeling of sparks flying around ready to set anything aflame. Violent accents combine with rapid runs making hairpin turns, as the contrapuntal texture evens out for occasional sustained notes. It is tempting to expound on conclusions about old age and creativity, but for now, let’s just rejoice that another fascinating new piece is born.

A superb Mendelssohn quartet (A Minor, Op. 13) opened the evening, with everything in place: bowings, dynamics, phrasing. The group’s blend was delectable, and even at high speeds, intonation registered cleanly, radiantly. On second violin, Ronald Copes offered vivacity as Roger Tapping’s viola warmth made the reading glow from within.

Beethoven’s op.130 closed the evening, and only confirmed that the group was enjoying one of those “on” nights. The first movement was abuzz and afizz with life force, helped by astutely judged transitions. The fourth movement waltz was ideally proportioned, and even more effective with a minimum of sentiment. Immaculate unisons (one yardstick of an accomplished ensemble) made the Grosse Fugue tingle, with first violin Joseph Lin again impressively on target in the intrument’s higher registers.

And after bringing out the players four times, an encore: the slow movement from Haydn’s quartet Op.20, No.5. In this context, the grace and simplicity were close to sublime.

Bruce Hodges

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