Review: Juilliard String Quartet, Feb. 6, 2013
By Melinda Bargreen
It’s never a good sign when an eminent musician delivers an apologia for the piece his quartet is about to play.
The Juilliard String Quartet’s cellist, Joel Krosnick, stepped to the front of the Meany Theater stage after the program’s Mozart opener to deliver some words of warning about the Elliott Carter Quartet No. 5 that was next on the program. He suggested the audience consider the quartet as a “conversation among four characters who do not have similar opinions.” There was some disagreement, Krosnick explained, among Carter’s four voices about what should happen next; he concluded by observing that Carter was “a social composer commenting on mankind today.”
It was a bleak commentary indeed. One of eight works composed after Carter’s 100th birthday (he died last year, just short of 104), the Quartet No. 5 is a set of 12 pieces, starting with a fairly brief introduction that the Juilliard foursome also played beforehand for the audience, during Krosnick’s discussion of the quartet. Acerbic, argumentative, and full of musical gestures that sound like expletives (violent pizzicatos and jagged musical exclamations), the Carter quartet sounded like the antithesis of the warmly lovely, beautifully paced reading of the Mozart String Quartet No. 21 (K.575) that preceded it.
At intermission, the word “interesting” was on nearly everyone’s tongue; this is a code word for “I didn’t like it very much, but I know I’m supposed to be impressed by Elliott Carter.” Let’s just say that this is a piece unlikely to make it onto very many people’s iPod playlist for joyous listening.
You can catch the flavor of the work on a fascinating YouTube clip in which Carter himself comments on the piece during a rehearsal of the Quartet No. 5 – also with the Juilliard Quartet.
The Seattle performance of this work wasn’t great; intonation was not as careful or precise as it was in the rest of the program, where octaves and other intervals were virtually perfect.
The program’s finale, Beethoven’s mighty Quartet Op. 131, said to be Beethoven’s personal favorite among his great late quartets. It was given an authoritative, feisty performance in which the quartet sometimes sounded like a rich-voiced string orchestra in some of the divisi passages. Starved for some tonality after the Carter quartet, the Meany audience gave the Juilliard a rousing and well-deserved ovation.