“To play the standard repertoire with the sense of excitement and discovery of a new work and play new works with a reverence usually reserved for the classics”: that was the mission of the Juilliard String Quartet when it was founded in 1946 at New York’s elite conservatory by its then director, composer William Schuman. Within a short time, it had leapt to the forefront of the American chamber-music scene and embarked on what would become an exceptionally long and distinguished recording career.
Now, following up its acclaimed reissue of the Juilliard Quartet’s early releases on Columbia’s Epic label, Sony Classical is pleased to present a single 11-disc collection – comprisingRead more Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, Dvorák and Wolf, Debussy and Ravel, Berg and Webern, and Elliot Carter and William Schuman – of all the recordings that the Juilliard made during its brief stint at RCA Victor between 1957 and 1960 including 4 LPs appearing for the first time on CD, remastered from the original analog masters.
In the words of a ClassicsToday critic reviewing an earlier reissue of several of these performances, the ensemble’s “lean sonorities, rhythmic exactitude, relatively swift tempos, and energetic, often virtuosic playing that illuminated a repertoire heavy in contemporary music … created quite a stir when it turned to the Viennese classics with its RCA recordings of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the time, the sprung rhythms, wide dynamics, and straight-ahead playing that refused to wallow in melodic beauties made the group’s interpretations seem outside the mainstream. But ‘mainstream’ tends to shift over time; we now can hear these recordings in a changed context that makes them pioneering ventures blazing new paths.”
One could also bestow this accolade on other performances in the new set, such as the quartet’s revelatory reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, Berg’s Lyric Suite and the French coupling, about which High Fidelity observed: “The Juilliard players do not soften, sentimentalize, or languish over this music, but emphasize its link with classic tradition, employing brisk tempos and powerful, straightforward rhythms. The result is quite astonishing: Debussy and Ravel come out more moving and beautiful than ever.”
For a brief period in the late 50s, the Juilliard Quartet left Columbia and made a nicely representative batch of recordings for RCA. However, collectors beware! The majority of these recordings were already released as part of RCA’s 60-disc Living Stereo miscellaneous box. Not included there were the Mozarts (K. 387 and 465), the Haydns (Op. 74 No. 1 and Op. 77 No. 1), a couple of the Beethovens (No. 2, 8 and 15)–four discs out of eleven. So if you already own the prior issue, you may want to think twice before acquiring this latest release.
That said, and from a musical standpoint, there is virtually nothing here to criticize. The Juilliard was at the top of its early game in these recordings. Tempos tend to be swift, textures typically lean and transparent. Hearing the finale of Haydn’s C major Quartet (Op. 74 No. 1) you might almost think you were listening to a period instrument group, except that the timbres are consistently more attractive and repeats less in evidence (sound clip). Indeed, the group’s emphasis on clarity of line and rhythmic dynamism suits music of the classical period as well as it does the contemporary works that the group made such a specialty–here represented by benchmark versions of Carter’s Second Quartet, William Schuman’s Third, Berg’s Lyric Suite and Webern’s Three Movements and Six Bagatelles.
In Beethoven, the Juilliard’s bold, relatively unsentimental approach established what many European commentators called the “American” style of playing, although from an aesthetic standpoint the moniker is completely meaningless, especially if we consider that when later, European ensembles adopted a similar approach, it was just as glibly considered “authentic.” Certainly there’s no lack of passion, either here or in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. A special treat comes in the form of Dvorák’s strangely neglected but utterly masterly Quartet No. 11 in C major, a great work given a great performance.
I have a special affection for this coupling of the Debussy and Ravel quartets, performances of such clarity and stylishness as to take the breath away. If you think that great playing is all dazzle and hair-trigger precision, check out the closing bars of the Ravel Quartet’s slow movement (sound clip). The ability to play softly, smoothly with no shakiness of the bow, with perfect ensemble balance and utter purity of intonation in the highest registers, is far more difficult than any amount of virtuoso passagework. Listen and be awed. A great set, beautifully remastered, and a joy from start to finish.
A good collection from a fine quartetMay 29, 2019By Louis Galie (Leander, TX)See All My Reviews"A reasonable collection of well-played quartets which show off the impressive talents of the Juilliard. They play Beethoven, Berg, and Haydn equally well. The set contains no Brahms, so I couldn't make full use of alliteration!"Report Abuse
Vital, energetic performancesFebruary 21, 2019By Barry W. (Salt Lake City, UT)See All My Reviews"The youthful energy of these performances is astounding. With a group as long-lasting and distinguished as the Juilliard Quartet it's easy to forget how exciting their earliest recordings were. Even if you have these works in later performances you won't feel as though these recordings duplicate what you already have."Report Abuse