The Juilliard Quartet plays Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.1 in A minor, Sz40, BB52 Op.7 (1909) [31:15]
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Sz67 BB75 Op.17 (1915-17) [29:51]
String Quartet No.3 Sz85 BB93 (1926) [15:10]
String Quartet No.4 in C major, SZ91 BB93 (1927) [23:08]
String Quartet No.5 in B flat major, Sz102 BB110 (1934) [30:09]
String Quartet No.6 in D major, Sz114 BB119 (1939) [28:50]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor Op.7 (1905) [42:16]
String Quartet No.2 in F sharp minor Op.10 with Uta Graf (soprano) (1908) [28:36]
String Quartet No.3 Op.30 (1927) [29:05]
String Quartet No.4 Op.37 (1936) [30:57]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyric Suite (1926) [28:20]
String Quartet Op.3 (1910) [19:54]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Five Movements for String Quartet Op.5 [10:48]
rec. 1949 (Bartók): 1951-52 (Schoenberg): 1950 (Berg Lyric Suite), 1952 (Berg String Quartet and Webern)
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES-6040 [6 CDs: 60:03 + 38:17 + 58:58 + 70:42 + 60:17 + 59:18]
There have been three Juilliard cycles of the Bartók Quartets. The most recent dates from 1981, the most international in its appeal was from 1963 – by which time only two of the original members remained - and the first set was recorded in 1950. In that year the Juilliard was a youthful quartet which had only been formed four years before, at the instigation of William Schuman. Robert Mann and Robert Koff were the violinists, Raphael Hillyer the violist and Arthur Winograd was the cellist – all Juilliard faculty members. These Bartók recordings were made not on tape but on large acetate discs.
The Juilliard had given the first public American cycle of the quartets in New York during February and March 1949. Columbia’s chief, Goddard Lieberson, duly signed them up to make an integral set of the Bartók quartets – adding for good measure the Schoenberg Quartets amongst a number of prestigious recordings in the years that followed. The recordings were issued on six 78rpm sets in 1951 and the Pearl reissue [GEMS0147] was apparently their first CD incarnation. They were not by any means the first performances of individual quartets – No 1 had been recorded by the Pro Arte, No 2 by the Amar-Hindemith and the Budapest Quartets, No 3 made an early LP appearance courtesy of the New Music Quartet, the splendid Guilet Quartet essayed No 4 whilst the Hungarians were back for Nos 5 and 6 – and in the case of the last quartet the Gertler Quartet set down a recording for Decca and the Erling Bloch did likewise for HMV.
But this was nevertheless the first complete cycle and a dramatically auspicious start to the Juilliard’s long career. All the performances are fully engaged and involved and small technical or rhythmic incongruities are of very little account in the face of such committed and often revelatory playing. The earlier incarnation of the Juilliard lacked the tonal finesse that increased with experience – and cellist Arthur Winograd was a noticeably less suave performer than Claus Adam who succeeded him, though that’s not always to Adam’s advantage in this of all repertoire. The pleasures of the early set are however legion. Winograd’s ardent expressivity courses through the first movement of No 1 – not over vibrated and with a rapt intensity. The Allegretto is illuminated by deliciously swaying rhythmic impetus and the finale is well controlled, with both violinists varying tonal production to real musical advantage. In the Second Quartet the Juilliard manage to integrate the much slower, more ruminative central panel of the first movement with judicious imagination. In the second movement there is no etiolation – they mine the mordant, hothouse atmosphere with impeccable logic and the finale is similarly sensitive.
The Third Quartet of 1927 with its disparities and disjunctions of tone and dynamics receives an excellent traversal though one perhaps not optimally adjusted to the vertiginous heights and depths of the work. Still this is an outstanding performance on its own terms, the high point of which is the second movement – strongly accented, the folk inflections integrated, sensible dynamics, resilient and determined music making, ironclad in rhythm, impressive in stature. The Fourth Quartet was the one famously criticised by Shostakovich; the Juilliard meets its exceptional challenges head on. Very occasionally one feels that the Juilliard hadn’t quite reconciled itself to some of the more problematic aspects of the writing and were consequently less propulsive than they might be – but this is a small quibble. They are more than adequately sensitive in the final movement Non troppo lento.
The Fifth features a most exactingly beautiful slow movement, one to which the Juilliard brings tremendous reserves of sustaining and luminous power; the interiority of the movement is delineated with unerring rightness; listen to the way Hillyer’s viola steals into the texture as one small but singular example of the finesse and acute ear for balance that all these performances possess. Equally the fresh air convulsiveness of the finale is intoxicating – vividly played, humorously inflected, triumphantly concluded. The Sixth Quartet receives a performance that teems with passionate declamation. Now driving and intense, now affecting and lyrical, the Juilliard retain equipoise and a balance between the polar oppositions of the work that only strengthens and deepens its profile. This is not immaculate playing, the tone does roughen and occasionally coarsen but this is playing that exists through and above such considerations; playing of immediacy and conviction, of a rare imaginative understanding.
The transfers are excellent. The performances are, obviously, outstanding. Whichever cycle you possess, whether by the Juiliard or by other Quartets - more recently the Takacs and Vegh come to mind - this first cycle will remain of prime importance in the discography of the Bartók Quartets.
All of which leaves the reviewer with a dilemma regarding the Schoenberg Quartets and the Berg and Webern that make up the remainder of the set. The dilemma is occasioned by how much one needs to write on their excellence, given that major interest in this box will, I suspect, centre on the Bartók works. The Kolisch cycle of Schoenberg Quartets had been recorded in the 1930s and is available on CD. This was the group to whom Bartók dedicated his Sixth and final quartet in 1941. It’s also the group that shared Schoenberg’s most intimate instructions regarding his music’s directions and despite the occasional asperity of the collective sound, in many ways their trailblazing 78 recordings remain unequalled in all except sonic matters and sheer technical virtuosity.
The Juilliard recordings were made around the time of Schoenberg’s death. The first sessions were on 3 and 8 May 1951, the series continuing until July 1952. The album set of LPs was released in December 1953. Its impact was hardly seismic – the repertoire, despite the ‘attractive’ and tonal early Op.7 was hardly congenial. But it certainly made its mark in specialist quarters, and was immediately acknowledged as a significant monument to the performance of Schoenberg on disc. Throughout the set ensembles lapses are remarkably few and none detract from the musical argument in the slightest. Perhaps the most sheerly impressive performances are those of the Second and Fourth Quartets. These face Schoenbergian dilemmas head on and with huge commitment, not least from Uta Graf in the singing of Stefan George’s texts, and in the Fourth they nail Schoenberg’s late style perfectly.
Don’t forget either that members of the 1960s group made the first recording of Schoenberg’s String Trio and, with a changed line up, they returned to it again in 1985. That much later disc also contained Verklärte Nacht with the addition of Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma.
Nor, too, should one bypass the sixth disc in West Hill’s collection, which contains the 1950 recording of Berg’s Lyric Suite, and the 1952 disc of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet and the String Quartet Op. 3. These are also profoundly important documents, played with the expected intellectual and digital command that the group so imposingly possessed.
There is a good booklet with details about the works and the Juilliard – though there’s a rogue page about a work that doesn’t appear. The transfer engineers divide responsibilities: Lani Spahr and Philippe Devereux take three CDs each, and Spahr’s work on the Bartók quartets has certainly managed to smooth out the occasional problems that marred the Pearl transfers.
Let me finally note that the six CDs are priced as three.
A significant monument in performance history.