Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 14th 2016
The Julliard String Quartet
Photo Credit: Steve J.Sherman
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Julliard String Quartet: quintessential American quartet gives Toronto a sublime performance
It has been fifty years since students from UofT’s Faculty of Music at U of T made the trek across College St. to Eaton Auditorium. The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto held its concerts in the dingy art-deco hall on the top floor of what is now College Park, the same venue where Glenn Gould recorded many of his famous LP’s. A group of uninitiated undergrads could be found in the balcony where they could read or sleep if the concert didn’t appeal. It was there that many discovered the beautiful and unnerving sounds of string quartets by Bartok, Shostokovich and Beethoven. It was there that I first heard the Juilliard String Quartet.
Last night at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto, in its opening concert of the new season, presented the 2016 version of America’s ‘quintessential quartet’. The Juilliard String Quartet is in its seventy-first year and has turned over its membership many times in that span. On the minds of many in the hall was the question of how its newest member, cellist Astrid Schween would fit in. She is replacing cellist Joel Krosnick, who retired this past June after forty-two years with the group. The programme of Beethoven and Bartok would be an excellent test.
The programme opened with Beethoven’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, “Quartetto serioso”. This is a work of great intensity and agonizing expression. One can hear the explosions of anger from Beethoven’s personal pain or perhaps the anguish resulting from an occupied Austria. It is said that Beethoven never intended the work for an audience of more than a few “connoisseurs”. Indeed, Schween did step up to the incredible challenges therein; each member played with passion and confidence; the group blended with the unity of an ensemble that had lived in every note for a lifetime. Joseph Lin (1st violin), Ronald Copes (2nd violin) and Roger Tapping, (viola) were each luminous in expressing the throbbing anger and angst intrinsic to this quartet. Schween was no less so. Their sound was at times as one instrument. Unisons were brilliantly clear and solos confidently passionate.
Bartok’s Quartet No.1, Op,7 (BB52), written a hundred years after the Beethoven, was no less demanding and no less a painful, personal expression of grief. It was clear from the outset that each of the performers found the soul of this music in their contrapuntal lines full of chromatic dissonances. The sense of a funeral procession was evident throughout the first movement. Like the opening Beethoven work, Bartok eventually finds relief from the misery, in Bartok’s case in Hungarian folk music. Following the despair, the joyful conclusion was ever more uplifting. The performance was truly inspired.
The second half of the program returned to Beethoven, this time Quartet in F, Op.59, No.1 (Razumovsky). The gently flowing opening theme in the cello and subsequently repeated in the other voices was a total departure from what we had heard in the first two works. As in the ‘Eroica’ symphony, the cello moves front and centre and its lyrical quality becomes a feature of the work, so appropriate for the new cellist of the Juilliard. It was as if to say she now belongs. Nevertheless, this is no early work reminiscent of Haydn. It has Beethoven written all over it in its complexity, symphonic scope and the virtuosity required of each performer and the ensemble as a whole.
Fifty years after my first encounter with the Juilliard String Quartet, it was as if it had matured and developed over time as I hope I have. With the latest change in membership, it is as if a glass-ceiling real or perceived has been broken. What we discovered on the other side of the ceiling is a vista of glowing stars. In a week in which the US presidential debate concerns the debasement of women, it is more than ironic, that here is a quartet reaping the rewards of equal voice.