Notes and Editorial Reviews
In celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, Sony Classical is pleased to release the internationally renowned Juilliard String Quartet’s recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets recorded from 1964-1970.
This stunning mid-price box set will be the first ever release of the Juilliard String Quartet’s 1964-1970 Beethoven cycle, in a single 9-CD edition. 6 LPs featured in the box set appear for the first time on CD, remastered from the original analogue masters using 24 bit / 192 kHz technology. The booklet includes a with new essay by string expert Tully Potter and full discographical notes.
The Juilliard String Quartet, which was founded in 1946 is one of the world’s most prestigious string quartets in
the world. In February 2011, the quartet received the NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award for its outstanding contributions to recorded classical music.
Writing about the outstanding American pianists who came to international attention during the post-war years, my late colleague Harris Goldsmith cited interpretive characteristics such as clarity over sensuality, a preference for “crew-cut” brilliance of definition, a certain high-powered (some call it “driven”) intensity, and a hard-grained approach to sonority. These words easily apply to the Juilliard Quartet’s 1964-’70 Beethoven cycle. To collectors weaned on 1950s Beethoven standard-bearers like the Budapest, Hungarian, and Végh quartets, the Juilliard’s impact was akin to being tossed into a cold shower.
Contrary to Sony BMG’s claim, this release does not mark the 1964-’70 cycle’s first integral CD edition; Sony actually brought out a limited import box in 2002, which I have not heard. But the label’s new transfers from original tape sources consistently reveal a more robust, less monochromatic string sonority in relation to the flintier treble-oriented LPs in my collection.
For example, the slow-moving chords and shimmering trills in Op. 59 No. 3’s introduction sound slightly drab and wan on my dog-eared vinyl pressing, yet gain a subtle yet haunting degree of tonal nuance on CD. The same holds true for the opening pages of Op. 132’s extraordinary Heiliger Dankgesang movement, where the ensemble’s rapt, long-lined concentration surpasses its faster, less inward earlier RCA recording. Heightened timbral allure also uncovers a sustained tension that I did not initially appreciate in the Juilliard’s broad reading of Op. 18 No. 2’s Adagio, which contrasts to the faster and relatively facile (though equally well played ) RCA Guarneri Quartet recording.
Because the acoustics of Columbia’s legendary high-ceilinged 30th Street Studio are more apparent than before, rapid cascading passages such as those in Op. 18 No. 1’s Finale and in the Op. 127 Scherzo now emerge as playful rather than wiry. Indeed, the late quartets abound with memorable details. Here the ensemble captures the quirky whimsy of Op. 135’s opening Allegretto with a genial and conversational demeanor that differs from their slightly mechanical earlier RCA version and the faster, more aloof live remake from the Library of Congress. Similarly, the tempo relationships and tricky points of balance in Op. 131’s long theme and variations movement appear more internalized and assiduous in the present recording in comparison with the earlier and later Juilliard traversals. While unrelenting abrasiveness is appropriate for the Grosse Fugue, I favor more breathing space and tender respite in the slower passages (i.e., the Takacs Quartet).
Perhaps Beethoven’s combative temperament and the Juilliard Quartet’s acerbic, tensile profile fuse best in the middle quartets, and these clean yet impassioned interpretations easily explain their erstwhile reference status. That said, the Juilliard’s less superficially perfect digital remakes of Op. 59 No. 3 and Op. 95 arguably dig deeper. I prefer the former’s heftier, more inflected slow movement, pronounced subito dynamics, and observance of both repeats in the first movement. And while ferocity has its place in the Op. 95 Allegro con brio, the slightly slower live traversal’s wider scope of dynamics and articulations brings forth a newfound sense of yearning and desolation below the music’s petulant surface.
Needless to say, there are many ways to approach the Beethoven quartets, and I would not want to be without my reference Alban Berg, Smetana, Végh, and Takacs cycles. Nor, for that matter, that of the Juilliard Quartet, whose 1964-’70 recordings infuse these amazing works with freshness, vitality, and meaning. Special mention should be made of Tully Potter’s insightful annotations.
– ClassicsToday (Jed Distler) Read less
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