Juilliard String Quartet play Haydn Op. 20 at Tanglewood

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Joseph Haydn
Joseph Haydn

Tanglewood, Seiji Ozawa Hall, Sunday, June 28, 2:30 pm
Juilliard String Quartet
All-Haydn Program
Sun Quartets
Quartet No. 27 in D, Op. 20, No. 4
Quartet No. 26 in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3
Quartet No. 23 in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5
Quartet No. 25 in C, Op. 20, No. 2

If this review is extremely brief, it is not intended as disrespect for either the composer or the illustrious Juilliard String Quartet. I was expecting a feast of some of my very favorite music, but it turned out to be a total disappointment. In their earlier life the Juiliard used to play with astringent timbres and an analytical style, which arose from their pioneering work with the quartets of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Béla Bartôk and other modern composers. This would have suited Haydn’s Opus 20 very well, but in recent years the current crew have enriched their sound and have adopted a style which is more suited to nineteenth century composers like Schubert, Brahms, and Dvořák.

In this concert their rich sound and flexible tempo seemed entirely inappropriate for Haydn’s great Opus 20 Quartets. They weren’t dashing them off thoughtlessly. If anything their approach showed entirely too much reverence. The Juilliard’s nineteenth century style, with  its particular kind of vibrato, rubato, and even a little portamento, seemed more of a distraction away from the composer’s intentions. This was consistent throughout the four quartets, and there is no point in going into details. The beauty of the concurrent Aston Magna and Brentano Quartet performances is their concentration on Haydn’s compositional logic and intentions.

By contrast the encore the Juilliard played, from a work not on the program, which they characterized as a prayer and dedicated to the long life of their quartet, was so heartfelt, that one could take no exception to it. It was moving and sounded absolutely right in its context.

I wasn’t hearing Haydn, really, so it all grew a little boring, and that’s an impressive feat in music one knows and loves. The musicians seemed a bit weary as well, and I fear it was infectious.

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