By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: