Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Juilliard Quartet: Beethoven Fireworks

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 23rd, 2019

From left: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes, Astrid Scwheen, Roger Tapping 

For the last concert of the summer season, Music Mountain hosted the Juilliard Quartet with a mostly Beethoven program. The opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 18#1 (1799). First violinist Areta Zhulla set tone and pace with an Allegro waltz in triple time with its repetitive circular refrains conjuring fugal format. Between 1798 and 1799 Beethoven spent eighteen months laboring on six quartets, #1 being the second one composed. Beethoven employed both large and small notebooks at the time and many of these sketch books are still extant. This intense study was a major push on the part of Beethoven into a genre that he had not attempted before. Beethoven’s ambition was to push beyond Mozart’s quartets, which he greatly admired. Beethoven succeeded here in the field of texture as it combined with popular dance. Of the six quartets completed, this quartet is the longest and the most polished.

The second movement Adagio, full of passionate yearning, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Astrid Schween’s cello lent expressive emotion as Beethoven strived to create a personal rather than merely public voice by investing a more idiomatic sound in the strings. The succeeding Scherzo leaves the maudlin romance of the mutual suicide tomb scene behind as if it were a temporary, passing fever Beethoven was outgrowing. This manner of contrasting pairs was to become a Beethoven signature. The dancing Allegro delivers joy with fugal ferocity. While Beethoven was to progress into ever more complex and brilliant quartets, this early work retains its public accessibility and charm, yet it was the crisp, unified immediacy of the performance here by the Juilliard quartet that made this quartet sound as if they were playing a major work.

Gyӧrgy Kurtág (b. 1926) was a late developing master of the end of the twentieth century. Exiled from Hungary during World War II, he became deeply influenced by the minimalism of Anton Webern and the stoic bleakness of Samuel Beckett, whose motto may be said to be: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” 6 Moments Musicaux for String Quartet, Op. 44 (1999-2005) offers an accessible sampling of his style rather than his most inspired work. Schween’s resonant cello provided an incantatory incantation or invitation to think with small leaps or increments. Tapping’s viola was crucial to tone and atmosphere in the following “footfalls” movement. Two key allusions that inspired this melancholy march were Becket’s play footfalls and a clock-ticking poem about old age by Endre Ardy where commonplace onomatopoetic sound dwindles to silence. Tapping adroitly caught the suspense of the movement. The light Capriccio where Zhulla’s violin soared paired by way of contrast, as in Beethoven. In memoriam Gyӧrgy Sebok, a close friend of Kurtág, contains minimalistic hints of the medieval Dies Irae intoned by Schween. Changing textures once more, the next movement imitates the pre-dawn song of birds with Ronald Copes’ violin performing bird calls. The Farewell, Les Adieux, re-works musical motifs from Kurtág’s piano sequence Games to provide eccentric uplift. The pleasure of Kurtág’s work resides in hearing unusual sounds that are strikingly original. My favorite movement was the second movement where Zhulla’s violin conjured Otherworldly sounds.

Beethoven was looking for a special odd sound when he composed his String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826). An encyclopedia of unusual sounds arises from every tonal area as it relates to C sharp. All six keys are exhaustively treated with variations. While this appears schematic, all seven movements of this late quartet display a pulsing rhythmic continuity that rises to ecstatic fervor in the finale where one feels transported into a spiritual Otherworld. The Juilliard Quartet played with such unified fervor and fire, especially Zhulla and Schween, that one felt hypnotized and elevated into a seventh heaven. This is such a great quartet that any music lover would like to have it on their schedule at least twice a year. There are many books and essays on this quartet burdened with intricate technical analysis, yet the whole here, in the listening experience, remains greater than its parts and has few rivals, even among the greatest masterpieces. What a way to end a marvelous musical season at Music Mountain!