The first ever release of the Juilliard String Quartet’s complete Epic recordings from 1956 to 1966 in a single 11-CD edition.
4 LPs appearing for the first time on CD, 8 CDs remastered from the original analogue tapes using 24 bit / 192 kHz technology.
Facsimiles LP sleeves and labels, booklet with full discographical notes.
The Juilliard String Quartet have been leaders in their field for well over half a century. Their continuing legacy is celebrated by Sony Classical over eleven albums, collecting their complete recordings for Epic Records, made between 1956 and 1966. “I do not want to give the impression that these are exhibitionist performances”, wrote Gramophone in 1963. “You don’t keepRead more thinking what a wonderful ensemble the Juilliard is; you keep thinking what wonderful quartets Mozart wrote”. Mozart’s six “Haydn” Quartets received, on this 1962 recording, “the best performances I have ever heard”, the stunned Gramophone critic wrote. Billboard agreed, writing that they “fairly glisten with the high polish of technical perfection”.
The Juilliard’s other recordings of the classics were no weaker. A fine 1963 recording of No. 15 in G major is also reissued for the first time as are the Juilliard’s 1964 recordings of Mendelssohn’s Second and Third Quartets, and a trio of Haydn quartets, op. 54, from 1966. The quartet’s 1965 recording of Beethoven’s three Razumovsky Quartets and his “Harp”, op. 74, are also included in the set. So is a collaboration with another venerable artist still active today, Leon Fleisher: the Juilliard and Fleisher’s rendering of Brahms’ Piano Quintet dates from 1963.
The Juilliard Quartet’s brilliance in 18th- and 19th-century repertoire is especially impressive for an ensemble originally formed – back in 1946 – to champion 20th-century music. This side of their work is evident from their earliest Epic album: works by the two lesser-known American composers Benjamin Lees and William Denny. Recorded in 1956, this was among the last Juilliard recordings to feature original second violinist Robert Koff.
The Juilliard Quartet’s recordings for Columbia (now Sony/BMG) deserve a big box all to themselves. Will they ever do it? Who knows? It would be huge. This release serves to whet the appetite. Originally the group recorded for Columbia’s “Epic” sub-label. As the name deliberately fails to imply, this meant the place that non-mainstream (to put in kindly) or, commercially speaking, second-tier artists went to marinate until either fame or oblivion overtook them. For example, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra were Epic artists because Columbia also had Ormandy/Philadelphia and Bernstein/New York at the top of its roster. In the case of the Juilliard, the top dog was the Budapest Quartet, with its limited repertoire of strictly old school, European masterworks. The Juilliard began life on Epic, then quickly jumped to RCA for a few years, where it proved its viability in more standard fair. By the early 1960s the Budapest was on its way out, and the Juilliard returned to Epic, and later Sony, to record both standard and contemporary repertoire. The rest is history.
What this means programmatically is that there’s some duplication between this box and roughly contemporaneous set containing all of the quartet’s RCA recordings: specifically two of the Mozart “Haydn” quartets, and one of the Beethoven Rasumovskys. For Epic, the Juilliard made complete sets of the Mozart and Beethoven groups (the latter includes the “Harp” Quartet as well, but “Serioso” is on RCA). Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” also appears on RCA, while the other two late quartets are here (along with No. 9). Contemporary music is represented only by two relatively uninteresting works by Benjamin Lees (String Quartet No. 1) and William Denny (SQ No. 2). The rest is all classic quartet stuff. Aside from the works just mentioned, you get Haydn’s three quartets Op. 54, Mendelssohn’s String Quartets Op. 13 and Op. 44/1, and the Brahms Piano Quintet with Leon Fleisher.
As to the performances, they are all exceptional examples of their kind: swift, virtuosic, amazingly balanced, always in tune, rhythmically sharp, unsentimental but never superficial or merely slick. The approach obviously benefited contemporary music, but also Haydn and Mozart. These performances have remained reference versions over the years–indeed, with the aesthetics of period instruments in our ears, they sound better than ever: not just “great” but also “right.” In Schubert too, the Juilliard’s contemporary sensibility enlivens this inventively textured music, consistently engaging the attention while still permitting those iconic melodies sufficient space to sing as they should.
In Beethoven, the Juilliard’s performances came as something of a shock. The standard-bearers in this music in the 1950s were primarily groups from Hungary: the Budapest, Hungarian, and Végh Quartets. Compare the “Old Europe” style of the Végh in the First Rasumovsky Quartet to the Juilliard’s higher voltage approach (sound clips). In truth, the differences overall are not always this drastic–the Hungarian Quartet, for example, sounds quite similar to the Juilliard performance, at least as regards tempo–but they are nonetheless real, and it’s probably fair to say that the Juilliard’s approach became the paradigm for many later groups in both the old and new worlds. Speaking personally, I enjoy them both. Choosing between them is a task I leave to others.
One thing, though, is certain: the Juilliard Quartet was made for Mendelssohn. His rapid-fire, hyper-precise, edgy style suites this group’s predilections ideally. The Second Quartet Op. 13 (really No. 1 in order of composition) receives an absolutely riveting performance, its cyclical superstructure rendered as cogently as any version on disc, while the D major Quartet, Op. 44/1 bubbles with energy (sound clip). It projects a joyous abandon that never turns trivial, and a melodic tension that sustains each movement as a single arch. These works still don’t get the attention they deserve, despite frequent recordings. Maybe this disc will change a few minds.
Overall then, this is an outstanding set by any measure. The remastered sonics are good, if not quite as vivid as the RCA Living Stereo sessions. Get this, and hope that Sony releases the Big Enchilada sometime soon.