Vivified by the recent addition of first violinist Areta Zhulla, the Juilliard String Quartet captured Beethoven at his brightest and darkest at a Lincoln Center concert last week. As if hitting the highway in fifth gear, they began the String Quartet No. 1 in F major with an effervescence that often takes chamber ensembles a couple of pages of music, or even a movement or two, to find.
The first movement progressed with an ethereal flair as the musicians brought forward Haydn’s influence, and even found nods to Mozart’s angelicism in sixteenth notes so fleet they seemed otherworldly.
A vaguely Eastern feel marked the sad melody of the second movement, while the musicians made the absolute most of the silences preceding the minor-key theme’s recapitulation and the coda. In these thrilling moments you could sense the audience holding its breath – literally, not metaphorically. It was a gorgeous performance in which the ensemble found the grace in the darkness.
In satisfying contrast, the third-movement Scherzo sounded jocular but smooth, smiling but with an air of worldliness. The excitement persisted through the finale, which took on a slightly exotic air, the violins sometimes sounding like flutes and clarinets.
Throughout this early but masterful work the Juilliard proved adept at achieving chamber-music intimacy in a large concert hall. Often a small ensemble can sound isolated or overwhelmed in a big space even when giving a technically excellent performance. Not so here.
I couldn’t remember where I’d just recently heard György Kurtág’s Moments Musicaux until I looked it up and realized that it had been the Juilliard again, at a concert in February with Marc-André Hamelin. The venerable modernist composer (still going strong at 93) includes in these six brief pieces bolts of dissonance and looming shades, moments of traditional harmony, and extensive use of harmonics to create a deconstructed quality.
I like this music. The Juilliard clearly has an affinity for it and gives it a convincing reading. I’m also all for concert programs mixing modern and less-well-known pieces with classic crowd-pleasing music. It’s one of the best ways to expose audiences to new or unfamiliar music, and can make for fascinating juxtapositions.
I’m not sure how well this particular choice fit in the context of Beethoven’s supreme eloquence, though. Possibly the musicians meant it as a gesture towards the incipient modernism in Beethoven’s Late Quartets. This was evidenced after intermission when the Juilliard dove into his Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor. But however forward-thinking Beethoven was, there’s an ocean separating the 20th century from the early 19th.
The Late Quartets can be challenging for the listener, as they are for the performers. On this occasion, not all the movements came across equally well. The opening Adagio had a nicely modulated, flowing tempo that rocked through the music’s continuous undulations with expressive power, looking toward high romanticism as well as the modern.
The tricky rhythms of the first Allegro movement felt a bit of a jumble, though, with some loss of clarity. And in the long Andante, while the individual players displayed lovely singing tones and the ensemble gave us passages of sparkling beauty, other places felt halting and uncertain. Even pitch sounded now and then in doubt.
Everything clicked brilliantly from the Presto onward. The intensely melodic Presto charged along with fiery precision. The Adagio was fulsomely effective. The energy reached stellar heights in the Allegro finale, where the musicians infused their breathlessly muscular performance with angsty, echt-Beethovenian passion.
The fact is, after two centuries Beethoven still shouts to us from behind his wall of deafness and pain. The Late Quartets burn with dangerously unbridled energy, sometimes with confusion. All we can do is continue to reckon with the composer, as the Juilliard String Quartet and so many others continue to do. It’s an ongoing challenge but one always worth taking on. We’re lucky that virtuosi like the members of the Juilliard String Quartet insist on continuing to do just that.