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Juilliard String Quartet
The Early Columbia Recordings
rec. 1949-56
SONY 19439831102 [16 CDs: 728:31]

Sony is doing fine work on behalf of the Juilliard Quartet, its latest box set being a companion to an earlier 11-CD set that explored the ensemble’s complete RCA legacy from 1957-60 (review). It represents the first release of the quartet’s complete early Columbias in a single set, mastered using 24bit/192kHz technology. The results, needless to say, are excellent and far superior to anything we have had before. Facsimile LP sleeves , which include the liner notes on the back, a full discography and a good essay and photographic reproductions complete the package.

The set begins with Milhaud, an important figure in America both as composer and teacher. His Cantate de l'enfant et de la mčre is narrated by his wife Madeleine, with Leonid Hambro at the piano and Milhaud himself directing the ensemble. Recorded in 1950 on 78s, it’s heard in a wonderfully clear and clean restoration. This occasionally aperçu-like work would have fared better with its French text and an English translation reproduced in the booklet but as it is you’ll have to find them elsewhere. Given that this is an ‘original coupling’ edition, you will also find Milhaud playing his delicious set of The Household Muse, vivid, crisp character pieces for solo piano.
Discs two to four contain the famous set of the complete Bartók Quartets. I’ve discussed these readings at length when they appeared on West Hill Radio Archives and whilst those transfers were undoubtedly good, Sony’s transfers are better still (review). That 6-CD WHRA also contained Berg’s Lyric Suite, which is contained on CD5, but not its companion here, which is Ravel’s Quartet. Sonically my preference is strongly for the Quartetto Italiano in the Ravel – though early on their conception of this work varied quite remarkably – but the American group’s trademark clarity and aeration of texture offers a viable alternative.

With CD6 we meet the first of the ‘Modern American Music Series’ discs, an invaluable exploration of contemporary or very near-contemporary Stateside chamber music. Copland’s Sextet features the Juilliard alongside clarinettist David Oppenheim and pianist Leonid Hambro in very crisp 1951 sound quality. Its coupling is Ellis Kohs’ broadly neo-classical Chamber Concerto for Viola and String Nonet. The soloist is Ferenc Molnar who did much to expand the viola repertoire at the time, but not all the Juilliards are present in the string group as Arthur Winograd is not one of the two cellists involved. CD7 features William Schuman’s bracing Fourth Quartet, where expressive intensity meets excellent architectural planning in a four-movement structure of real variety and interest. It’s the very opposite of dry. The coupling here is the ‘Concerto a tre’ by Ingolf Dahl. One of the many attractive features of a straight reproduction such as this is that one doesn’t lose couplings of this kind. This perky and droll work, with its rich sonorities, is played by clarinettist Mitchell Lurie, outstanding violinist Eudice Shapiro – we’ll hear more from her soon – and pianist Victor Gottlieb.

CDs eight to ten contain the four Schoenberg quartets and were also in the WHRA box noted above and are, once again, heard to better advantage here. CD11 and 12 return to the American theme. Leon Kirchner’s Quartet No.1 is itself rather Schoenbergian in places with a rather bleached slow movement. It’s not played by the Juilliard but by the American Art Quartet, led by Eudice Shapiro, with Robert Sushel, violist Virginia Majewski (another outstanding player) and Victor Gottlieb. A box set such as this, putatively devoted to the Juilliard, cannot help but amplify the huge wealth of talent to be found in American string quartets at this time. Irving Fine’s two-movement Quartet is played by the Juilliard, and they locate the music’s slow sense of stasis as well as its agitated and free use of the twelve-tone row. Peter Mennin and Andrew Imbrie share the twelfth disc. Mennin’s Second Quartet is notable for its tight rhythms and the beautiful refinement of its slow movement whereas Imbrie’s Quartet, composed in 1942, moves between clotted and seeking moments of space; the effect never quite coheres.

Amidst the Americana we suddenly chance on the Mozart coupling of CD13 in recordings from 1953 that are technically adroit and not without some affection. But it’s much more productive to resume their proselytizing for new American repertoire. In CD14 there is Virgil Thomson’s String Quartet No.2, a product of the late 1920s and couched in a distinctly ‘Classical’ vein. This is the kind of work where one waits for a joke that never appears, but the slow movement is strongly expressive, and the quartet as a whole is avuncular, charming, unpretentious, and of no significance whatsoever. The LP coupling is William Schuman’s Voyages, a cycle of five pieces for piano, stylishly performed here by Beveridge Webster.

Alexei Haieff’s First Quartet and Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, in the famous recording made by Leontyne Price and the composer, share CD15. It’s always good to be reminded how something like the Hermit Songs first appeared on disc in this – to us, now - unlikely seeming context. In fact, Haieff’s Quartet, composed in 1951, is a crisp, Gallic affair, eager and active and with a rather lovely Lento coda. Like the Milhaud you won’t find the texts of the Barber songs in the booklet though they’re obviously well-known.

The last disc is another split between the Juilliard and the American Art Quartet. The former plays William Bergsma’s Third Quartet, a neo-romantic work that seems to echo Beethovenian cadences and has a conversational liveliness that is most appealing. It also shadows Bartókian procedure from time to time and possesses ardour and amplitude. Why do we hear so little of Bergsma? Finally, there’s Lukas Foss’ First Quartet, played by Eudice Shapiro’s superb quartet. This vivacious piece has a long series of variations, some melancholy, others folk-inclined, all beautifully contrasted and constructed.

Expect, inevitably, LP timings on each CD.

This invaluable tranche, with those famous Bartók and Schoenberg cycles included, is notable for the excellence of the transfers, heard in better sound now than ever before. Add this, if you can, to those earlier Juilliard-Sony boxes.

Jonathan Woolf

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): Cantate de l'enfant et de la mčre (Cantata of the Child and the Mother) Madeleine Milhaud (narration): Leonid Hambro (piano)/Juilliard String Quartet/Darius Milhaud
Milhaud: The Household Muse - Darius Milhaud (piano)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945): String Quartet No. 1, Sz.40
Bartók: String Quartet No. 2, Sz. 67
Bartók: String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85
Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91
Bartók: String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 10
Bartók: String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114
Alban Berg (1885-1935): Lyric Suite
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): String Quartet in F Major, M. 3
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet – David Oppenheim (clarinet): Leonid Hambro (piano)
Ellis Kohs (1916-2000): Chamber Concerto for Viola and String Nonet - Ferenc Molnar (viola): Robert Mann, Robert Koff, Francis Chaplin and Ralph Shapey (violins): Raphael Hillyer and Spinoza Paeff (violas): Charles McCracken and C. Ziegler (cellos): Stuart Sankey (double bass)
William Schuman (1910-1992): String Quartet No. 4 (1950)
Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970): Concerto for Clarinet, Violin & Cello "Concerto a Tre" - Mitchell Lurie (clarinet); Eudice Shapiro (violin); Victor Gottlieb (cello)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7
Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 10 – Uta Graf (soprano)
Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30
Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37
Anton Webern (1883-1945): 5 Movements for String Quartets, Op. 5
Berg: String Quartet, Op. 3
Leon Kirchner (1919-2009): String Quartet No. 1 - American Art String Quartet
Irving Fine (1914-1962): String Quartet (1952)
Peter Mennin (1923-1983): String Quartet No. 2
Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007): String Quartet No. 1 in B-Flat Major
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): String Quartet No. 20 in D Major, K. 499 "Hoffmeister"
Mozart: String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 "Prussian No. 1"
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989(: String Quartet No. 2
William Schuman: Voyage (A Cycle of Five Pieces for Piano) - Beveridge Webster (piano)
Alexei Haieff (1914-1994): String Quartet No. 1
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Hermit Songs, Op. 29 - Leontyne Price (soprano): Samuel Barber (piano)
Lukas Foss (1922-2009): String Quartet No. 1 - American Art String Quartet
William Bergsma (1921-1994): Third String Quartet No. 1

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