juilliard quartet great collaborations sony

Juilliard String Quartet
Great Collaborations Volume 5
Rudolf Firkusny, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Jorge Bolet (piano)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Walter Trampler (viola); Harold Wright (clarinet)
rec. 1965-1991, CBS 30th Street Studios/The American Institute & Academy of Arts & Letters (#), New York. ADD/DDD
Presto CD
Sony Classical SM2K62709 [2 CDs: 133]

This re-issue from Presto is one of  series which in 1996 marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Juilliard String Quartet by Robert Mann (1920-1918). While there have of course been changes of personnel in the ensemble up to the present day, the period covered by these recordings was remarkably stable in that regard; there were only three different incarnations of the quartet over a quarter of a century, and Mann was a constant, permitting them to perfect the homogeneous combination of “heart and head”, as he put it, for which they were famed.

The selection of six works here could hardly be more varied or enticing. There is no lack of competition when it comes to choosing a preferred recording of the piano quintets by Dvořák and Schumann but such is the standard of the Juilliard’s playing over the years that the chances of disappointment are zero. Nonetheless, I compared their recordings of those two works with my own favourite versions by the Clementi Ensemble on ASV and the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes on Virgin Classics (review; one of David Barker’s Recordings of the Year in 2008) respectively, and my assessment of their account of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is below. I designated the 1961 Heifetz/Piatigorsky recording of the Franck piano quintet on the Pristine label as “Recommended” in September 2020 (review) and use that as my benchmark. I was unfamiliar with the Copland sextet, so came to it with fresh ears. The Barber song is a shorter work – almost a filler – but an interesting choice (Fischer-Dieskau is oddly listed in the credits as “bass-baritone” – which he never was.)

The Juilliard and Firkusny play Dvořák’s piano quintet with elan and a palpable sense emerges of the enjoyment shared between the pianist and the quartet in their interplay. It is hard to imagine anyone not liking this music, which exhibits Dvořák’s gift for borrowing from the dumka form and incorporating folk -or at least folk-inspired – themes into passages of a searing melancholy beauty alternating with exuberant “furiants”. The coda to the finale is wonderfully co-ordinated and joyful. The Clementi enjoy crisper digital sound than in this 1975 analogue recording but it is still fine, warm and full. In any case, this is a recording which has long since attained classic status and nothing should change that.

The text of “Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold’s apotheosis of pessimism, is not provided but it is readily accessible on the Internet and Fischer-Dieskau’s English diction is excellent – indeed, exemplary. He is in most youthful and flexible voice; nothing gravelly or windy, just clean, pure tone and the balance between his baritone and the strings is ideal.

I very positively reviewed the Juilliard’s 1991 digital recording included here of the sextet version of Verklärte Nacht in my survey of that work:

“Such a distinguished line-up promises much and the Juilliard, auspiciously augmented by two great artists [Walter Trampler, viola; Yo-Yo Ma, cello], do not disappoint. They open by producing a deep, steady, buzzing tone which is wonderfully foreboding and the digital sound provides just the kind of depth, clarity and immediacy that I find lacking in, for example, the Nimbus recording above. Then there is a silky, singing beauty in their lyrical lines but also plenty of breathless urgency when required. I also note that they apply the dynamic variation missing in more gung-ho or restrained accounts. Their delivery of Part 4 is as broad, Romantic and soulful as that of any ensemble here and they manage to create that delicate, filigree sound so essential to fabricate starlit magic. Perhaps the unvarying emphasis upon tonal beauty is less gripping than, say, the Ensemble InterContemporain above but that is a matter of taste – and for me, there is no lack of concomitant drama. The way they build from around seven minutes int the fourth section, then hold off and pull back before letting the big “forgiveness theme” explode, is breath-taking. The final section is dreamy perfection – and they drain their habitually refulgent tone to give the final bars a reedy, etiolated timbre in order to reinforce their other-worldliness – clever.

As you can tell, I love this recording and place it in a par with the aforementioned 1983 Boulez-mentored Sony version.”

The Schumann piano is a work beloved of chamber music aficionados and receives a deeply Romantic interpretation, rich in rubato and vibrato, suffused with passion – as one might expect when Bernstein is the piano soloist – and he proves himself to be no mean pianist. The recorded sound is a little close and clangourous but that just intensifies the impact of this performance. Again, as you might expect from Bernstein, tempos are pushed to extremes: the three fast movements are very fast and the “largamente” Marcia is …yes, very slow and halting, because Lenny did nothing by halves. I like the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism and confess to finding the Artemis account classically cool by contrast when I played it after listening to this Juilliard recording. Both work, but the emphatic manner of Bernstein and the Juilliard quartet is almost shocking – the Scherzo is especially bracing – yet they are also capable of a delicate lyricism, even if they are never as refined as the Artemis ensemble.

I did not know the Copland sextet and in truth find it almost comically predictable in its deployment of what I recognise as his musical tropes. You could not ask for a warmer, more distinguished clarinettist than Harold Wright, who shortly after this recording became principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and whose Mozart clarinet concerto with Seiji Ozawa I have long prized, and the pianist is the composer himself. The music is alternately cheeky,  perky and “keck”, then doggedly doleful – and does nothing for me beyond prompting my mild amusement; you might feel differently.

I became acquainted with the Franck Piano Quintet through the double disc issue by Pristine Audio of the Heifetz/Piatigorsky chamber music concerts (review) and this recording matches it for sonority and commitment. The presence of the great Jorge Bolet, who recorded so much Liszt and a fair amount of Chopin but is otherwise rather under-represented in the catalogue, will be a major draw; as with Bernstein, his overtly Romantic style is ideally suited to the desperate effusions of Franck’s masterwork and the Juilliard match him for ardour.

Full notes by Bruce Adolphe about both the quartet itself and the music they are playing are very helpful to the listener.

Ralph Moore

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Presto Music

CD 1:
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81
rec. 1975
Samuel Barber (1910-81)
Dover Beach, Op. 3
rec. 1967
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4
rec. 1991*#
CD 2:
Robert Schumann (1810–56)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44
rec. 1964
Aaron Copland (1900–90)
Sextet for string quartet, clarinet & piano
rec. 1966
César Auguste Franck (1822–90)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 14
rec. 1978