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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12 (1829) [25:06]
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) [30:18]
Juilliard String Quartet
rec. Giandomenico Studios, Collingwood, New Jersey, February and May 1998
SONY CLASSICAL SK60579 [55:24]
Experience Classicsonline

The Juilliard Quartet, like the late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield, "gets no respect." The ensemble seems rarely to turn up on anyone's short-list of favourite quartets; even reviews that acknowledge the quartet's top-drawer status can still sound tepid. This coupling of two early Mendelssohn quartets - their chronology apparently as muddled as that of the composer's symphonies - set me to thinking about this curious state of affairs.

Not only are the Juilliard's best performances marked by an essential "rightness" - giving the impression that we're hearing the score more or less unmediated, though that can't really be the case - but the players execute their interpretations with a remarkable unanimity. You may be thinking that all performers should have such problems - this is, after all, what most musicians strive for: as the expression goes, it's the art that conceals art. Precisely as such, it's difficult to describe intelligently. It's easier for the critic to pay lip service to the quality of performance, and then to enumerate perceived shortcomings of tone, intonation, and such - thus leaving a negative impression! 

The A minor quartet's Adagio non lento illustrates the situation nicely. The grave, lyrical chorale that starts things off suggests a conventional slow movement, but Mendelssohn feints with a brief fugato at 1:16, establishing what turns out to be the movement's principal motif before erupting into more conventional development at 2:43. The Juilliard players make sure that motif stays clear and forward; yet there's also a strong sense of the harmonies produced by the combined lines, so the listener also feels the weight and direction of the chordal progressions. To prepare this effect obviously took a great deal of care, yet the result sounds utterly natural. And, in case you're curious, the composer does bring back the chorale to round out the movement - he never leaves messes. 

A similar balancing of melodic and harmonic factors - or, if you like, the horizontal and vertical - allows the composer to combine scherzando and lyrical elements in the same movement, and thus to get by without a full-fledged scherzo in either quartet. The E-flat's second movement, a Canzonetta, is at once weighted and gracious, maintaining that grace into the scurrying Trio section. The third-movement Intermezzo of the A minor moves a bit faster, but here the solid underpinning of pizzicatos makes for a haunting tone la Beethoven's Seventh. Other expressive highlights include the full-throated chords at the start of the A minor, which sing with tremendous gravitas, and the quasi-operatic drama of the E-flat's finale, where the players find scope for shade and shaping even in the flatfooted second theme. 

The Juilliard's tone quality here is rich and unified, but there is the occasional intonation problem. A few octaves - always difficult with solo strings - in the E-flat's Andante espressivo aren't quite dead in tunes, but that moment passes quickly. More conspicuously, I'd not swear that the tuning is accurate in the turbulent figures of the A minor's first-movement development, which seems to go every which way; fortunately, there's sufficient dramatic impulse and forward motion to carry the listener over the rough spots. 

Were I to have heard performances of this quality and insight, at, say, Alice Tully Hall, I'd have considered my evening well-spent. How much better, then, to be able to enjoy them any time at home! 

Stephen Francis Vasta


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