Mendelssohn: String Quartets No 1 & 2 / Juilliard Quartet
Can a chamber group have a musical identity that endures despite changes in personnel, the way an orchestra can? On the basis of the CD at hand, I'd have to say so. With the retirement of violinist Robert Mann in 1997 after 51 years (!), the Juilliard String Quartet has now, finally, turned over all its original players. Joel Smirnoff, for 11 years the group's second violinist, has moved confidently into Mann's chair, and Ronald Copes joined the quartet to take Smirnoff's old position. But listening to this excellent new disc of two Mendelssohn works, then to the Juilliard's late 70s recording of a Haydn op. 20 quartet (with the current violist and cellist, Samuel Rhodes and Joel Krosnick) and then to Beethoven's op. 18, no. 1, from a decade before (with an earlier bottom half of the quartet), I hear the same characteristic blend of refinement and soulfulness, the evolution of the lineup notwithstanding. Encountering the reconstituted Juilliard in the flesh was a highlight of last year's concert season for me; chamber music fans clearly have a lot to look forward to.
The E?-Major quartet gets a fairly relaxed reading, though the playing is certainly never slack. There's a natural ebb and flow to tempos in the opening movement and, in the second, a wonderful variety of textures is realized. In the central Allegretto of the movement, the Juilliard achieves a Midsummer Nights Dream sort of fleetness. The Andante is indeed espressivo without becoming overwrought. The swirling tarantellalike finale is presented with an understated virtuosity, before a peaceful closing. The A-Minor work is played with a greater level of emotional intensity. Dynamic contrasts are effective—the Juilliard can turn on a dime—and Smirnoff's leadership in the opening Allegro is both fervent and accurate. We hear flawless balances in the Intermezzo, and beautiful shaping of the simple thematic materials. The quartet is, again, wonderfully light on its feet with the quicksilver middle portion of the movement. For the concluding movement, Smirnoff satisfies in his solo passages with assured, beautifully contoured playing, and the ending, in which Mendelssohn quotes from his song Frage, as he does at the very beginning of the work, is quite moving.
Sony's string sound is warm and sweet, without a touch of stridency. The recording, made at the Giandomenico Studios in Collingswood, New Jersey, is close-up and involving, but still breathes. The packaging is attractive, with photos of the musicians in a parklike setting, and informed, well-written notes that point up the influence of Beethoven on these youthful compositions.
Among recent versions of the Mendelssohn quartets, those from Vienna's Artis Quartet, on Accord, have received high marks in Fanfare. I like them, too: The Artis offers direct, energetic performances, taking consistently faster tempos than the American players. The Juilliard may please a bit more in the slow movements. I'd not want to be without either. Listeners on a budget can consider the three discs of Mendelssohn's music for string quartet from Naxos, performances by the Aurora Quartet (four musicians from the San Francisco Symphony) that received a laudatory notice from John Wiser in Fanfare 18:2. Although their readings of ops. 12 and 13 are thoroughly convincing, they don't, for me, rise to the level of either the Artis or the Juilliard, and the sonics are less pleasing.
The Sony disc is heartily recommended. The Juilliard Quartet is back.
-- Andrew Quint, Fanfare [5-6/1999]
Catalog Number: SONY60579
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Orchestra/Ensemble: Juilliard String Quartet
Performer: Joel Krosnick, Joel Smirnoff, Ronald Copes, Samuel Rhodes