Juilliard Quartet

String Quartet in B flat, Op.76/4 (Sunrise)
String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso)
SibeliusString Quartet in D minor, Op.56 (Voces intimae)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 April, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Juilliard is among the elite of string quartets. Over fifty years there have naturally been personnel changes – the longest serving member is now Samuel Rhodes (33 years), while Ronald Copes has been in place for just four. The Juilliard’s repertoire covers Bach to Elliott Carter.

This is an ensemble that has a sense of communion, of something sacred being enacted. There was nothing ’holier’ in this concert than the Adagio of the Haydn – spacious, deeply felt, a pinnacle of refined dialogue, to which the sprightliness of the scherzo-like Minuetto and its rustic Trio offered hedonistic pleasure after benediction. The occasional roughness in the outer movements counted for nothing against the tapestry of delight the players created with their light, intimate sound, whether in the cantilenas of the first movement or the good-natured interplay of the finale, the scurrying coda all the more telling for earlier restraint.

In the ’Serioso’, it took until the development for full Beethovenian intensity to determine the concentration of the opening movement, although without fully banishing the notion that it’s constructed from aphorisms. If slow Haydn was blessed, then Beethoven’s following Allegretto was profound – the fugal writing air-cuttingly grave, wonderfully sustained with variety of vibrato, occasionally none; deeply serious, something underlined by the Juilliard’s ’adagio’ conception. In contrast, how frolicsome the final movement’s closing bars appeared in their Mendelssohnian caprice.

Sibelius’s only quartet is a rarity, yet it’s a mature work written between the Third and Fourth symphonies sharing the economy of the former and the introspection of the latter. Soulful, personal, and to this listener usually impenetrable, the Juilliard’s eloquent advocacy enthralled in its commitment and intensity, not lost over the several minutes interruption when a member of the audience was taken ill. The pivotal Adagio di molto – the quartet is a five-movement design – emerged here as sublime (you could hear a pin drop). Sibelius also releases tension at the finish, dance-inflected and spectral, and brought off with infectious verve by a great quartet in full flight.

The single encore, ’Contrapunctus IV’ from The Art of Fugue, was a perfect choice given the Bachian sub-text running throughout the first-half; the Juilliard presented Bach as being alive and well, no curator in sight.

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