Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MUSIC REVIEW

Juilliard String Quartet lacks trademark brashness

October 11, 2005|Adam J. Baer | Special to The Times

In the competitive string quartet world, where gifted young groups vie to play just a few cities each season, the storied Juilliard String Quartet flaunts brand-name authority. Unfortunately, however, the original group led by maverick violinist Robert Mann as an emblem of the brash American style no longer exists.

As the quartet's current incarnation proved Sunday with a concert of Beethoven and Bartok at Walt Disney Concert Hall, today's group is a brand -- one that, despite tactful and mature interpretations, skews increasingly predictable and less than rousing.

Perched above the group on the stage-right side of the hall, it wasn't easy for a listener to hear former second violinist and current leader Joel Smirnoff's sinewy melodies above the Haydnesque accompaniments in Beethoven's first and pointedly classical quartet, the Opus 18, No. 1. What was evident, however, as the group opened with a plush, somewhat subdued sound was the fiddler's mediocre intonation. Couple that with a Romanticized interpretation that sounded rough, for all of early Beethoven's seamless transitions, and the performance probably wouldn't have impressed listeners if they hadn't paid big bucks to hear classical celebrities.

In Bartok's Fifth Quartet -- a five-movement modern work with a jagged scherzo in its center -- the band gelled better. One highlight was a sustained moment in the slow second movement during which the low-pitched musicians shifted from one long tone cluster to another as Smirnoff let eerie long high notes float atop them. The aggressive beginning of the first movement, however, sounded too elegant, and throughout the sliding pizzicatos -- to say nothing of the work's string snaps and displaced trills -- didn't sound unusual enough. What's fascinating about Bartok, after all, is how fresh and rock 'n' roll-like his music can still sound in 2005. This quartet turned in a much less aggressive and more palatable reading than its predecessors would have in the 1960s.

The one piece that deserved the brand of valedictory IQ (Important Quartet) playing was Beethoven's last quartet, the Opus 135. The group infused a nostalgic, happily philosophical attitude into this affectionate end to one of chamber music's most important chapters. Still, throughout this buoyant performance, it was hard not to focus on the unfailingly clear, tonally precise and vocally human sound of second violinist Ronald Copes. Of course, some traditions must remain in place when dealing with the classics, but one wonders if the Juilliard group might not benefit from following the example of the more contemporary Emerson String Quartet: Why not let its two violinists split time in the leader's chair?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|