Long-lived chamber ensembles are like fine wines: the vintage keeps coming back, sometimes with the flavor slightly altered, but the bottles occasionally need changing. The Juilliard Quartet is seventy years old, and its cellist of forty-two years, Joel Krosnick, retired with last year’s season. His replacement, the German-born Astrid Schween, is the first woman to join the ensemble, and her arrival has naturally been much anticipated. That Ms. Schween is an outstanding musician could be taken for granted; the Juilliard need never settle for less than the best. Her playing is rich and subtle, feather-light in softer passages while both powerful and refined in more emphatic ones. The larger question was how she would blend into the Juilliard’s fabled sound. The answer came with the first notes of the opening work on Sunday’s Perelman Theater recital, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor. The Juilliard still plays, magically, like a single four-voiced instrument, and the music it makes sounds like the most natural and inevitable thing in the world. Would that such an effect were easy to achieve; perfect, unforced cohesion is the hardest thing in art. But when the testing and rehearsal is done, it is the imaginative sympathy of the performers, unified in the work itself, that makes for magnificent result. The Juilliard, to put it simply, hasn’t missed a beat.
The Mendelssohn A Minor Quartet, the first of his six string quartets although catalogued as his second (a frequent mistake in the helter-skelter publication numbering of the period), is a wonder. Mendelssohn is famously precocious, and the music he wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the String Octet as a fourteen-year-old remain works whose maturity and sheer genius baffle developmental psychologists no less than music listeners to the present day. But the A Minor Quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was eighteen, is in its own right not only the finest work in the medium ever written by a composer so young, but a work of extraordinary exploration that anticipates much of the nineteenth century. Themes are subtly related and recycled from movement to movement in the later Romantic manner, even as Mendelssohn gives a wink backward toward Haydn in the false close of the Presto Finale. The Juilliard played the work with wit and invention of its own, bringing out a wealth of color and sentiment, and, in the Adagio non lento, a depth of feeling not out of place in the years that produced the great last quartets of Beethoven and Schubert.
The Quartet changed gears abruptly for Mario Davidovsky’s Quartet No. 6, a work commissioned by it that it has been introducing this season. The Buenos Aires-born Davidovsky, who is now eighty-three and who settled in the U.S. in 1960, was long associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Center, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 with his Synchronisms No. 6 for piano and tape. The new Quartet, entitled Fragments, is for strings alone, and while referencing classical tradition it is anything but retrospective. On a first hearing, and in a wholly engaged, hair-trigger performance by the Juilliard, it is a work that tips its music from instrument to instrument, occasionally drawing out a phrase or a drone effect but never lingering long on any idea. Davidovsky has described the score himself as “pointillistic,” and although the effect is frequently Webernian, it isn’t tied to twelve-tone technique. Does it work? Like many contemporary works that still have an avant-garde flavor, Fragments seems to be pointing toward a unity beyond the notes themselves—or perhaps between them, in the silences no less than the sounds it creates. It certainly held this listener’s attention.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet. In Hollywood, movies were audience-pretested in the 1940s, and downbeat endings sometimes changed as a result. In less commercial media, artists tended to be more resistant; Michelangelo essentially told Pope Julius II to stick to theology when he criticized his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. But Beethoven, notoriously indifferent to criticism, wrote an alternate ending to the Op. 130 Quartet when pressed about the difficulty of the original finale, a fugue of stupendous length and complexity. Although musicologists have pointed to thematic and instrumental references in the Grosse Fuge to the work’s earlier movements, the criticism had a point: in this otherwise most dancelike and graceful of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Grosse Fuge is like a great, rogue planet that has wandered out of its orbit. Perhaps no composition could contain it, and it is most often played, as it was originally published, as a freestanding work. Some quartets nowadays perform the original version as the more “authentic,” or simply as a novelty; the Juilliard presented it at the Perelman. It is still an inassimilable curiosity, however splendid, and the Juilliard, however committed, couldn’t create unity where Beethoven’s own genius led him initially astray. But it is worth hearing now and then, as fascinating an anomaly as exists in music.