Juilliard Quartet

String Quartet No.3
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Juilliard String Quartet [Joel Smirnoff & Ronald Copes (violins), Samuel Rhodes (viola) & Joel Krosnick (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 16 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The short accompanying biography for this lunchtime recital praised the Juilliard Quartet’s characteristics of “clarity of structure, beauty of sound, purity of line and an extraordinary unanimity of purpose.”

Bartók’s Third String Quartet has clarity of structure the like of which was rarely equalled in 20th-century classical music, a self-contained work whose compacted formal designs help to produce music of great intensity.

The Juilliard performance had many good things – a thoroughly convincing second part, where Samuel Rhodes’s viola found the heart of the principal melody. The coda, too, was brilliantly executed, from the scratchy harmonics called for by the composer to a resounding finish.

The Juilliard’s tempo choices tended to be on the broad side, however, and the cut and thrust of the big chords in the first part was lost, delivered in a heavy set manner. Vibrato, too, was an occasional issue, the overall sound arguably too clean for Bartók.

There were no such quibbles with the Schubert, a performance of great clarity but also tension. The opening statement was blessed with immaculate ensemble, the response from Joel Smirnoff an almost unbearably tender melody.

The heart of this performance lay in the Andante second movement Variations, and the quartet took a slow, chant-like interpretation of the main theme in an incredibly poignant moment. As the Variations progressed so the intensity heightened, with sweetly melancholic cello solos from Joel Krosnick in the fifth Variation in answer to a biting, almost savage unison for the preceding one. The coda was nearly overdone, but stopped short of dazzling us with the brightness of the major key.

Darkness reasserted itself with the last two movements, a grim, heavy scherzo with inexorable drive, even allowing for the sunnier trio, and the whirlwind presto finale. Here the Juilliard’s togetherness was captivating as the music raced forward, checked only briefly by an unusually regal second theme. Once again the ‘tarantella’ asserted itself, and the quartet finished with a convincing and powerful coda.

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