Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Juilliard returns, with fresh faces

The Juilliard String Quartet: Joseph Lin, Joel Krosnick, Roger Tapping, and Ronald Copes.  Photo: J. Sherman

It has been years since we've seen the Juilliard String Quartet in these parts  - and to be honest, you might not have recognized the line-up that played Jordan Hall as part of  Celebrity Series last week, as first violinist Josephn Lin and violist Roger Tapping are all but brand new (Lin joined in 2011; Tapping, more familiar to Bostonians as a member of the Takács Quartet, arrived in 2013).

Certainly the many fans of this venerable brand needn't worry about any decline in its quality, though; if anything, Lin's incomparably light, tender attack brings a sweeter edge than ever to the quartet's famously subtle, probing sound.  Their programming (at least last week) was likewise along familiar lines - the concert was devoted to the Viennese tradition, with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" balancing two offerings from the Second Viennese School, Webern’s Five Movements and Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3.

With Webern and Berg cheek-by-jowl in the first half, and Schubert alone in the second, intermission seemed to span a stylistic chasm - although of course you can argue that Schoenberg and all his pupils lie curled within the bud of the famous second movement of "Death and the Maiden."  Still, Webern and Berg are almost more unlike than like: Webern is the gnomic mandarin who reduces passionate arcs into coolly sculpted miniatures; Berg, in contrast, weaves a highly keyed hysteria into an almost static, yet incomparably complex, latticework. Neither makes for easy listening, although Webern always has the virtue of brevity; inscrutable as his work may be, it's never long before it's over!

Berg is more demanding of the listener - and is often more frustrating; but it must be admitted the Juilliard illuminated his febrile torments with a searching, sympathetic light, and more warmth and transparency than usual.  And they did manage to suggest a link between Berg's fraught despair and the haunting song of "Death and the Maiden," which they played (of course) transportingly.  The first movement seemed to speed by, but the quartet took their brooding time with the second, to heart-breaking effect. More than ever here, Lin seemed first among equals, sending surpassingly tender melodic lines over the composer's more desolate ruminations. The quartet then turned and gave the rousing final movement its full valedictory force.

The crowd of course called them back for encores, but they only offered one: the lovely Largo cantabile from Haydn’s String Quartet in G, Op. 33, No. 5.  Rarely for Haydn, it's in a minor key, which perhaps cued the moody romantic treatment the Juilliard gave it - and for a moment, Schubert's shadow seemed to be cast backward in time as well as forward.

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