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Juilliard String Quartet: The Complete RCA Recordings 1957-60
Mono and stereo
RCA RED SEAL 19075863412 [11 CDs: 510 mins]

First came the 11-CD reissue of the Juilliard Quartet’s Columbia Epic LPs (1956-66) that in a few cases were intended to supplant earlier mono performances, and now comes the 1957-60 RCA Victor discs. The most important and interesting question, given that many of these performances have been reissued on CD by Testament and by RCA, in its Living Stereo boxes, is the existence of previously unissued items in this new 11-CD RCA box.

Beethoven’s Opp.18/2 and 59/2 quartets were intended for catalogue number LM/LSC-2192 and scheduled for release on 24 April 1959 but for some as yet unexplained reason it was withdrawn prior to release. The facsimile sleeve shows a stark black and white photograph of the quartet and its catalogue number clearly visible, though I suspect this is a mock-up and no sleeve notes are reprinted. Both were recorded in November and December 1957 and are in stereo.

I think, though, that the release might have clarified its position regarding the claim that ‘4 LPs [are] appearing for the first time on CD’. It’s next-to-impossible to decipher which specific LPs are referenced from the track listing. Tully Potter’s useful but very concise three-page summary of the ensemble – during which one feels him audibly pulling numerous punches when it comes to questions of their interpretations - doesn’t have much space to go into these issues. So far as I can see the Beethoven referred to above is obviously one and I suspect that Mozart’s K387 and Beethoven’s Op.132 are heard in CD premieres. The booklet notes that the pairing of Dvořák and Wolf, which was originally intended for release in 1961 only appeared in 1964 under the RCA Victor ‘Stereo’ imprint, but this has already appeared in the vast 60-CD RCA Living Stereo box. So, with regret, I am going to have to bail out and fail definitively to nail what precisely can possibly constitute 4 LPs previously unavailable on CD. All I can say is, would not four ‘works’ (not LPs) be nearer the mark?

Adherents of the quartet generally express a partiality for one period or other in its long, illustrious history. But I think by general consent the period from the astonishing Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern recordings to the end of the Epic stereos was an absolute high-water mark, for instrumental finesse and a technical virtuosity almost unmatched by any other ensemble of the time. Given that these RCA recordings are, largely, very well known, I’ll concentrate on those recordings that seem to me worthy of special mention. Firstly, naturally, that previously unreleased Beethoven coupling. The arresting chording of the opening Op.59/2 and the characteristic objectification of its slow movement familiar from later incarnations are all well-known even if this recording itself is not. The trademark clarity and precision and inner-voice work are all at optimum virtuosity, but one has to accept the tonal aesthetic or not, as suits one’s own preference. I have always preferred the Beethoven performances of the Juilliard’s American contemporaries the Fine Arts Quartet on Everest to the Juilliard itself, but I realise this is a minority position; I happen find their clarity is purer and more flexible, and their expressive playing far more moving. The companion unpublished work, Op.18/2, is similarly brusque in places.

Beethoven’s Op.132 is housed on its own in CD11. The concentration, once again, on the utmost in precision comes with a decided curtness. Here, the Juilliard is a quartet to set your watch by; a stringent corrective to tonally saturated performances that sits in a wholly different tradition from the Lćner, Busch, Budapest or Amadeus in this repertoire. American critics swear blind by the Debussy-Ravel coupling but like the Dvořák and Schubert I find the playing unsympathetic and cold. The first movements of the French quartets are certainly quite fast, but they are nowhere near as quick as the Bouillon Quartet’s 78s, should that matter. The best of the Juilliard is predictably in the American disc. Elliott Carter’s Quartet No.2 was commissioned for and premiered by the ensemble and they are perfectly attuned to its rhythmic purposefulness. Still, William Schuman’s Quartet is an effortlessly superior work to the Carter; intensely communicative and alive and one of the masterpieces of the American quartet tradition. Next, it’s their mono Haydn with splendid performances of Op 74 No.1 and Op.77 No.1 where the delineation of the lines works to the music’s advantage and not to its detriment. The mono Mozart recordings are not perhaps quite as arresting but were also in the vanguard of ushering in less saturated approaches to this repertoire.

Remastering from the analogue tapes has used 24bit/192 kHz. The results, whether mono (Haydn and Mozart) or stereo, are commendable. For clarity, intonational accuracy and analytical insight the Juilliard had few peers, and this is a handy box, along with the Epic, with which to get to grips with its legacy.

Jonathan Woolf

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K387 'Spring'
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K465 'Dissonance'
Joseph HAYDN: String Quartet, Op. 74 No. 1 in C major
Joseph HAYDN: String Quartet, Op. 77 No. 1 in G major
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 'Rasumovsky No. 2'
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18 No. 2
Franz SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 'Death and the Maiden'
Franz SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 12 in C minor (fragment), D703 ‘Quartettsatz'
Claude DEBUSSY: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Maurice RAVEL: String Quartet in F major
Elliott CARTER: String Quartet No. 2
Robert SCHUMANN: String Quartet No. 3
Alban BERG: Lyric Suite - for string quartet (1926)
Anton WEBERN: Five movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909)
Anton WEBERN: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 (1911-1913)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op. 95 'Serioso'
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135
Antonin DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61 (B121)
Hugo WOLF: Italian Serenade in G major
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132

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