For their second appearance at The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society this month, The Juilliard String Quartet was scheduled to perform with premier pianist Leon Fleisher playing Brahms’ Piano Quintet. Unfortunately Mr. Fleisher had to bow out due to illness. JSQ substituted the Brahms with a handy string quartet. Violinists Ronald Copes and Joseph Lin, violist Roger Tapping violist and Joel Krosnick performed one of their regular season programs an altogether sterling concert of Haydn, Beethoven and contemporary composer Shulamit Ran.
Music scholar Paul Schiavo points out in excellent program notes that Haydn was the first to develop mature string quartets. It is evident in his String Quartet in G Major, op. 33, it states, defines and even anticipates so much in this form. The witty and vibrant baroque-ness leads to intense, and adventurous string dialogues with the intricate baroque-classical mixes, sounding to an extent free form. Scherzo brightness gives way to somber clusters. Joseph Lin’s passionate and precision playing can’t help but take the spotlight early on, but the ensemble synergy is as resplendent as the composer’s timeless musicality.
Connected in form, but at the other end of the musical spectrum in effect is Shulamit Ran’s String Quartet, op. 2, Vistas composed in 1988-89, was occasioned by a musical cultural exchange with Russia. Shulamit is the second women to win a Pulitzer Prize for composition and her voice in this piece also displays her compelling voice and the drama she brings to this form.
Ran An overt and virtuosic challenge of form under subheads- Concentric, Stasis, Flashes, Vista- is musical architecture in constant structural and dazzling motion, like a chaotic, but fully formed sonic world with muscled, sometimes hostile phrases, razor sharp string interlocks , note bends, roving contrapuntal language and subtle, lyrical echoes of Hassidic music. Each musician has challenging solo lines, with the two final movements cued by Krosnick with a somber dissonant line that pushes, almost furiously, in different directions. This piece and JQ’s playing grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.
Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 26 doesn’t sound like Ludwig’s epic symphonic work, cathartic solo pieces or even his violin concertos, but almost a liberated form, even with Beethoven’s defining technical prowess, this admirably, is without any signatures. Beethoven showing that the viola is not second string to the violin and Tapping making the most of those movement lead-ins. This string quartet has an almost self-mocking edge in moments, one of the composer’s rare instances of musical levity.
Without pause, Juilliard String Quartet’s trademark full sound and technique is always in the musical moment with the audience.