Review: The Juilliard Quartet at South Mountain, with Haydn, Ran and Schubert

One questions what the use is of “doing our due” to the obscure repertoire of the avant-garde when it often seems we have only tangentially begun to probe the works of the eternal genius Haydn.

I must apologize to my readers for missing the second chamber music concert of this year’s series at South Mountain in Pittsfield, because I was away. I understand the young and promising Pacifica Quartet, under whom I studied as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where they were the quartet in residence, gave a delectable program.

It was my misfortune this week to be confronted with the work of another Chicago-based musician, who, I am afraid, delights me not at all. She is the American-Israeli composer Shulamit Ran, whose Second String Quartet “Vistas,” from 1989, filled the majority of the program’s first half.

Composer Shulamit Ran
Composer Shulamit Ran

In the end, therefore, I had to be thankful that the other offerings of the afternoon were so enchanting: An early Haydn quartet, and Schubert’s frenzied “Death and the Maiden” masterpiece. One was also fortunate to have the eminent Julliard String Quartet in its 68th season, especially for the Haydn, which they played masterfully. It is just a shame they didn’t sing enough in the Schubert.

It is perhaps unfair to begin any program with a Haydn Quartet, because, as I hinted at in my last review, every other work of the string-quartet repertoire can seem ill-tempered, and abstruse when compared with Haydn’s marvelously clear writing. Hearing this delightful, little known piece, Op 33 No. 5 in G major, one questions what the use is of “doing our due” to the obscure repertoire of the avant-garde when it often seems we have only tangentially begun to probe the works of the eternal genius Haydn.

The South Mountain Concert Hall.
The South Mountain Concert Hall.

The first movement of this delightful quartet begins in a flurry, as if we were just tuning in midway through. The development, though short, has a number of ravishing harmonic changes; and just when it seems, in the recapitulation, that we are bound for home, Haydn heads takes one left turn before winding it up.

What is typically Haydn here is the sort of frenzied stateliness of the ideas and their development; it has whimsy, but also classical elegance, a balancing act that Beethoven would bring to full consummation.

The soulful second movement, in minor, marked “Largo e cantabile” has something of Vivaldi in its long, spun-out, shimmering quality; one can almost see the reflection of the sun on the grand canal as the first violinist (the generally first-rate Joseph Lin) sings this aria-like melody. The third-movement scherzo is boisterous, as expected, and hardly seems to let up much at all for the trio. The finale, where we normally expect a head-long rush to the finish, is in many ways the most staid movement of the piece; it is rather more of a composed theme and variations than a rollicking rondo; another left turn, and you can almost hear Haydn laughing.

From my limited knowledge of Shulamit Ran’s work, and from talking with one of her colleagues at the University of Chicago, I can say that she is, by all accounts, a very talented musician, and was, indeed, something of a prodigy in youth. Ran is probably comfortable writing in a number of styles, but the one she has chosen here is most un-attractive. It probably shows the influence of her former colleague in Chicago, the American composer and MacArthur winner Ralph Shapey, who wrote the kind of the thing that causes some of us to put our hands over our ears, and begin making for the exit.

Ran’s Quartet No. 2, called “vistas,” is not as ugly as Mr. Shapey’s music; but it is, unfortunately, moving in that direction. The first movement, marked, “Maestoso con Forza,” begins with a wall of sound producing a sort of zither-like, vibrative effect, which then develops into something that sounds more like the buzzing of a colossal hive of bees. This is by far the most palatable section of the piece. As Ran begins to takes herself more and more seriously, and the piece rises in passion, all we get is more and more ugliness, and less and less coherence. The Juilliard cellist Joel Krosnick had prefaced the work on stage by promising “Romantic melodies.” I should like to know what he was drinking before he said that.

The Juilliard Quartet.
The Juilliard Quartet.

After the intermission we were treated to Schubert’s great “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, which takes its name from a poem by Matthias Claudius, to which the second movement’s “Andante con moto” theme was also set as a song, in which an impersonated death attempts to coax a girl into its clutches. Schubert almost assuredly saw something of himself in this poem, for at the time of this quartet’s composition he was well aware that he was dying of syphilis.

In any event, the piece has probably more passion in it, per bar, than most anything Schubert wrote, which the Juilliard Quartet took and ran with, though a little excessively, in my opinion. In trying to embody Schubert’s angst, the players forgot that what makes Schubert truly great are his melodies, interweaving and developing, one off of another.

The movement, which begins with a strident, yet simple descending line, set against triplets, leads us forward into a rapturous second-theme; and Schubert never ceases to find new melodic inspiration, even amidst the torrent of string lines which he lays on especially thick in this piece. I really do wish the Juilliard Players would have mellowed a bit, especially for the second movement’s “Death and the Maiden” theme, and perhaps also in the third movement scherzo which, though it had plenty of vigor, lacked sonorousness. But it is the Juilliard Players, though not perhaps the caliber of some decades ago, who have generally a rich, sound, if a little rough around the edges, and play with great zeal.