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Quartet Watching: Five by Four

September 29, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

Quartet-watchers have tended lately to wish a fond farewell to longtime kingpins, the Juilliard Quartet, after a number of dispiriting showings attributable to the increasing unreliability of the quartet's founder, first violinist Robert Mann, only to eat our words with a subsequent appearance in which Mann and his much younger colleagues made time stand still.

The end of the Juilliard as we know it remains in sight: Mann is 75, after all. Let's be patient, however. We'd be foolish not to considering the wonders achieved by the Juilliard in music relatively new to its repertory, the two quartets of Leos Janacek, as well as a longtime specialty, the "Lyric Suite" of Alban Berg (Sony 66 480).

Granted, it's "only" a recording; and in the studio, you can hack away till you get it right, and even rehearse your spontaneity. But the sort of musical penetration that emerges here can't be faked or applied after the fact.

There are more more subtle and mercurial readings of the Janaceks around. But with the Juilliard there is also a grandeur, combined with visceral drive, not found to such a degree elsewhere. Most importantly, Mann and his colleagues expose connections between themes, phrases and rhythmic patterns that make for a powerful unity of each of these seemingly disjunct marvels.

Comparisons are immediately at hand with the release of a pair of Janacek performances by the Panocha Quartet of Prague: light, agile and fanciful in contrast to the Juilliard's weighty drama (Supraphon 0215 2131).

These are intimate scores in the Panocha's hands, and its way works well too. With the increasing familiarity of this music, its susceptibility to a wide variety of interpretations has been made manifest.

What is decidedly not right about the Supraphon release is the fact that it only includes the Janaceks, particularly in view of Juilliard-Sony's accommodation of the "Lyric Suite." Like the Janaceks, it was written in the 1920s, and like the Czech composer's Second Quartet, it is a passionate musical love letter to an adored woman. The Berg, however, inhabits a wholly different harmonic and emotional world, secretive, pained, neurotic--and no one brings these qualities to the fore as force-fully as the Juilliard has been doing for at least four decades.


Although the Panocha trained with Antonin Kohut, cellist of the celebrated Smetana Quartet (disbanded in 1989), its interpretations are its own, a fact underscored by the reissue of the Smetana's 1965 recording of the Janacek Second (Testament 1075).

The Smetana's interpretation is more robust and plain-spoken than the Panocha's, with the former showing the strongest links to the folk tradition exemplified by its namesake composer, Bedrich Smetana. Testament presents the Smetana Quartet's Janacek alongside its incomparably lyrical 1967 interpretation of Dvorak's moonstruck Opus 105, his last quartet, and his Terzetto.

From Vienna's Alban Berg Quartet comes a performance, recorded live last year in the Vienna Konzerthaus, of Dvorak's Opus 81 Quintet, with pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, coupled with a reissue of a live-performance recording made in Carnegie Hall in 1993 of the Schumann Piano Quintet, this time with the ebulliently songful collaboration of Philippe Entremont. In both instances, the ABQ, which has been resting on its technical laurels lately, recovers the combination of rhythmic intensity, clarity of tone and dramatic heat that distinguished its performances of the 1970s (EMI 55593).


How bland and uncommitted in comparison to all the foregoing is the recorded debut of the reconstituted Takacs Quartet, which with its original membership came roaring out of Hungary a dozen years ago to settle in the U.S., vastly expanding its international exposure and then seeing the retirement of its first violinist and death of its violist.

The original second violinist and cellist remain, but the new players have hardly revitalized the quartet, on the evidence of the foursome's way with scores by Smetana, including "From My Life," and Borodin's D-minor Quartet (London 452 239). While the old Takacs, hardly notable for precise ensemble, usually gave us a lively show, the new, cleaner Takacs fails, utterly, to rise to the emotional and dramatic demands of these Romantic standards.

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