Long-lived chamber ensembles are like fine wines: The vintage keeps coming back, sometimes with the flavor slightly altered. The Juilliard Quartet is 70 years old and its cellist of 42 years, Joel Krosnick, retired last season. His replacement, German-born Astrid Schween, is the first woman to join the ensemble.
A winning streak continues
That Ms. Schween is an outstanding musician could be taken for granted; the Juilliard Quartet need never settle for less than the best. Her playing is rich and subtle, feather-light in softer passages while both powerful and refined in more emphatic ones. The larger question was how she would blend into the group's fabled sound.
The answer came with the opening notes of the first work on the program, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor. The Juilliard still plays, magically, like a single four-voiced instrument, and the music it makes sounds like the most natural and inevitable thing in the world. Would that such an effect was easy to achieve; perfect, unforced cohesion is the hardest thing in art. But when testing and rehearsal are done, the performers' imaginative sympathy, unified in the work itself, makes that magnificent result; they haven’t missed a beat.
Classicism and pointillism
Mendelssohn’s A Minor Quartet, the first of his six string quartets (although catalogued as his second, a frequent mistake in the period’s helter-skelter publication numbering), is a wonder. Mendelssohn was famously precocious, and the music he wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the String Octet as a 14-year-old remain works whose maturity and genius baffle both developmental psychologists and music listeners. But the A Minor Quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18, is not only the finest work in the medium ever written by a composer so young but a work of extraordinary exploration that anticipates much of the 19th century.
Themes are subtly related and recycled from movement to movement in the later Romantic manner, even as Mendelssohn gives a wink backward toward Haydn in the false close of the Presto finale. The Juilliard played the work with wit and invention, bringing out a wealth of color and sentiment, and, in the Adagio non lento, a depth of feeling not unworthy of that plumbed by Beethoven and Schubert in these years.
The quartet changed gears abruptly for Mario Davidovsky’s Quartet No. 6, a new work they commissioned. The Buenos Aires-born Davidovsky, now 83, settled in the U.S. in 1960. Long associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Center, he won a 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Synchronisms No. 6 for piano and tape. The new quartet, "Fragments," is for strings alone, and though it references classical tradition, it’s hardly retrospective. On a first hearing, and in a wholly engaged, hair-trigger performance by Juilliard, it is a work that tips its music from instrument to instrument, occasionally drawing out a phrase or drone effect but never lingering long on any idea.
Davidovsky has described the score as “pointillistic,” and although the effect is frequently Webernian, it isn’t tied to 12-tone technique. Does it succeed? Like many contemporary works that still have an avant-garde flavor, "Fragments" seems to point toward a unity beyond the notes—or perhaps between them, in the silences and the sounds it creates. It certainly held my attention.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet. In 1940s Hollywood, movies were pre-tested in front of audiences, and downbeat endings sometimes changed as a result. In less commercial media, artists tended to be more resistant; Michelangelo essentially told Pope Julius II to stick to theology when he criticized his Sistine Chapel frescoes. But Beethoven, notoriously indifferent to criticism, wrote an alternate ending to the Op. 130 Quartet when pressed about the difficulty of the original finale, a fugue of stupendous length and complexity.
Although musicologists have pointed to thematic and instrumental references in the Grosse Fuge to the work’s earlier movements, the criticism had a point: In this otherwise most dancelike and graceful of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Grosse Fuge is like a great, rogue planet that wandered out of its orbit. Perhaps no composition could contain it, and it is often played as it was published, as a freestanding work. Some quartets nowadays perform the original version as more “authentic,” or simply as a novelty; the Juilliard presented it at the Perelman. It is still an inassimilable curiosity, however splendid, and the Juilliard, however committed, couldn’t create unity where Beethoven’s own genius led him initially astray. But it is worth hearing now and then, as a fascinating musical anomaly.