Classical Reviews - Ensemble
Written by James H. North   
Saturday, 12 May 2012


BARTÓK String Quartets Nos. 1–6. SCHOENBERG String Quartets Nos.1–4. BERG Lyric Suite . String Quartet , op. 3. WEBERN 5 Movements for String Quartet , op. 5

The Juilliard Quartet was founded in 1946 by William Schuman, president of the Juilliard School. Violinists Robert Mann and Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd were its original members; they stayed together for nine years, which span all of these recordings. None of these 13 works was a premiere recording; the Kolisch had recorded the four numbered Schoenberg Quartets in 1936–37, the Pro Arte and New Music ensembles the Berg and Webern, and various ensembles individual Bartók quartets in the 78-rpm and early LP eras, starting with the Amar-Hindemith in the 1920s.

The Juilliard’s Bartók—the first complete set, performed by one consistent ensemble—was recorded in 1949 and issued simultaneously on 78s and on three Columbia LPs, ML-4278/80. They made an overwhelming impact; I learned five of the six works from those LPs, which still adorn my ever-dwindling collection of records. These were the Juilliard’s first recordings (March–August, 1949), helping establish it as a new-music ensemble (What! Bartók before Beethoven?); but they also established the group’s technical excellence, undeniable in this then-difficult music. They are remembered as tough, edgy recordings, but much of that must have been initial unfamiliarity with the music, as even those old LPs sound remarkably warm and fresh today. Lani Spahr’s restorations, taken from the LPs, not only capture that but improve brightness and clarity while eliminating any sonic disturbances that might have accrued over 62 years. The performances are revealed anew as sensitive and delicate as well as potent. The Allegro Vivace of the First Quartet now emits a humorous sparkle only suggested by the LP. The Second Quartet captures a Hungarian flavor as if all four players had been born in Pécs and schooled in Budapest. The fierce yet musical snap of the Fourth Quartet’s pizzicatos is hair-raising. I’ve heard at least half of the more than two dozen complete recordings of the Bartók quartets; my favorite remains the 1963 Juilliard stereo remake (Robert Mann, Isidore Cohen, Raphael Hillyer, and Claus Adam), now on Sony 77119. (Be careful to avoid the Juilliard’s 1981 digital recordings, which are inferior.) These early monaural recordings, once available on Pearl CDs, come very close.

The Juilliard recordings of the four published Schoenberg quartets were important in a different way. Almost all performances of Schoenberg works up to that time (1952) were awkward and ugly; it seemed as if musicians went out of their way to make the music unpalatable. This applied even to the Kolisch Quartet, led by Schoenberg’s brother-in-law; its recordings have technical as well as interpretive problems. And no wonder: In what may have been the earliest case of its kind, the Fourth Quartet was recorded prior to its first public performance. The Kolisch 78s were subscription editions sold to finance the performances and recordings, and were purchased by a limited few, including Schoenberg’s friend, mutual admirer, and tennis partner, George Gershwin. Their Alco LPs adorned Schwann catalogs from 1950 but were hard to find; they can be heard on a pair of Archiphon CDs, 103/104. These Juilliard recordings, made in 1951 and 1952, were issued in December 1953; unusually, they remained available into 1980, well after the Juilliard stereo remakes (with Earl Carlyss, Samuel Rhodes, and Joel Krosnick joining Mann) appeared on the market. These mono originals reflect an understanding and appreciation of the music unique for their time, and the Juilliard’s technical prowess is a great improvement over the Kolisch. Schoenberg no longer sounds harsh and awkward; even the serial Third and Fourth quartets maintain their connections to the classical string quartet. Furthermore, the problem of balancing a dramatic soprano (Uta Graf) with a string quartet is solved here. Heard today—when everybody plays Schoenberg well—these performances hold their own against such notable sets as those by the Arditti, Schoenberg, and LaSalle quartets. I remember finding the Juilliard’s stereo set to be less incisive and a bit generalized. In short, these are superb performances, and the well-recorded and well-transferred (by Philippe Devereux) monaural sound is no barrier to enjoying them.

Berg’s op. 3 Quartet and Webern’s Five Movements were fillers in the monaural Schoenberg set, SL-188 (although the Schwann catalog didn’t notice their presence until the three LPs were issued singly); the Lyric Suite was recorded in 1950 and released on a 10-inch LP, ML-2148. The original Juilliard was an aggressive group that attacked music with gusto; all to the good in Bartók and Schoenberg, but Berg’s elegance and Viennese angst are missing from this performance of the Lyric Suite . The musicians may have come closer to Berg’s music in the two years after they recorded the suite, as the early (1910) quartet is played with great finesse and considerable delicacy. The Juilliard’s Webern movements lack the high polish that has become de rigueur in performances of his music, and they are stronger for it, having an open directness that is both revealing and satisfying.

Extensive notes on every work (and on Schoenberg’s early Quartet in D Major, which is not in this set) have been derived from Wikipedia, including a bibliography for each. An analysis of the Lyric Suite makes no sense because musical examples are referred to but not printed. Stefan George’s poems for the Second Quartet appear in German and in English. The six CDs are packed in a compact cardboard box and are sold for the price of three.

As is always the case with ensembles whose personnel change over time, the Juilliard—despite Mann’s continuing domination—became several different quartets. This impressive release makes a strong case for the original foursome, which established the group’s type-A personality and celebrated its initial credo, set forth by Schuman and Mann, “to play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new.” None has done so any better. James H. North

Last Updated ( Saturday, 01 September 2012 )
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