Juilliard String Quartet: Beethoven, Bartok, Dvorak (CD review)

Juilliard String Quartet. Sony 19439858752.

By John J. Puccio

The Juilliard String Quartet needs no introduction. They are an American institution. But for the few unenlightened, here is a brief description. The already knowledgeable may safely move on to the next paragraph. The Juilliard School’s president at the time of the quartet’s founding, William Schuman, suggested the creation of the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946, where it has been the quartet-in-residence ever since. From then until now, it has received numerous awards, including four Grammys; it has recorded countless albums; and it has known seventeen different members. Its present configuration consists of Areta Zhulla, violin; Ronald Copes, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello. Yet despite the years and despite the changes in personnel, the quartet has remained remarkably the same in tone, temper, precision, and style.

On the present album, the quartet celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary with three cornerstone works of the quartet repertory: Beethoven’s String Quartet in e minor, Op. 59, No 2; Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, SZ.85; and Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, “American.”

The program opens with Beethoven (1770-1827), who published the String Quartet in e minor, Op. 59, No 2 in 1808, one of his middle-period quartets. It’s also the eighth quartet he wrote, so sometimes people just refer to it as No. 8. To further complicate its naming, the quartet’s benefactor was a Count Rasumovsky, who provided one of the tunes. So the quartet is also known as “Rasumovsky.” By whatever name, it’s lovely.

So is the playing of the Juilliard team. Their care and accuracy are things of beauty. Their inflection, their tone, their graduated stresses are letter perfect. Their nuance is above reproach. One can easily hear from the opening movement of the Beethoven that we are in the company of greatness, both from the composer and from the Juilliard Quartet. They understand the nature of the music, the succinctness of Beethoven’s writing, the appropriate points of emphasis, and the length of sustained silences. Yes, lovely, and ending in befittingly high spirits.

Next is Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945), who wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1927, one of six he composed in the genre. Bartok intended the piece to be performed in one uninterrupted span, but in the score he indicated four distinct sections. The piece begins rather somberly but livens up by the second part (Seconda parte: Allegro). As always, the Juilliard foursome handle it with authority, capturing the forward and rhythmic pulses of the work with clarity and assurance.

The program concludes with Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), who wrote his String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, “American” while he was living in the United States, and thus the familiar name for the work. He wrote it just after he wrote his “New World” Symphony, and it, too, proved a success. Dvorak said of it, “When I wrote this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did." As with the Ninth Symphony, Dvorak credited Negro spirituals and Native American folk music as influences on his quartet, although he quoted nothing directly from them in the score.

If you like Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony and somehow have never heard the Quartet in F minor, you’ll find in it a surprising similarity in structure and melody to the bigger work, a resemblance the Juilliard players are keen to exploit. The music dances smoothly between restfully introspective passages and carefree, pulsating segments, the Juilliard players appearing to enjoy the contrasts and cadences as much as the listener.

Producer and engineer Steven Epstein recorded the music at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College State University of New York in May 2019. I’m not sure I have heard a string quartet captured any better. Although they are slightly close, they are exceptionally well balanced, with excellent transparency, dynamics, and realism. There is no hint of hardness, brightness, or forwardness in the sound, just a totally natural presentation.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa