On Monday night in the Martin Theater at Ravinia Music Festival, the famed Juilliard String Quartet performed a concert of the “Three B’s”- Bach, Berg and Beethoven. With only two of the original members of the Juilliard String Quartet still part of the ensemble, one wondered whether they would live up to the promise of their name and reputation. They did.
However, the programming of the first half of the program- with Four Contrapunctus’ from Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue followed by six pieces of Berg’s Lyric Suite was a deadly combination- for this audience. While the Bach was played admirably well, with attention to highlighting the themes in each fugue, the sparse use of vibrato as per “period” performance practice yielded a somewhat thin and monotonous sound, which did not favor the string quartet’s technical and musical abilities. These are pieces that are meant for the practice room for study and codification of fugue forms and techniques- an encyclopedia of fugue styles, so to speak. They are not the works of Bach that everyone flocks to concert halls to hear- eg: Goldberg Variations, Suites, Partitas, Toccatas, and they did not hold the interest the way Andras Schiff’s 2. 5 hour recital of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier did. As an opener for a concert, it was OK, but two Contrapunctus’s would have been fine- four became a bit boring.
Following the Bach with the Berg was also a mistake. The first three Berg pieces were hazy in my mind, lacking in interest. But, the last three came alive, with more virtuosity, rhythmic impulse and interesting bow techniques which created varied and unusual sounds from the string quartet. There is no doubt in my mind that this was as fine a performance of this work as you might hear anywhere. Alban Berg is not for everybody, though. And at Intermission I polled some attendees who were not particularly thrilled with the repertoire choices on this first half of the program. In fact, it was enough to make about one-third of the audience leave to go home. For a Monday mid-Summer evening, this was just not optimal programming.
Those who remained after the Intermission were treated to an unbelievable account of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky String Quartet, Op. 59 No. 3. It was fabulous from start to finish, all four movements. I wondered how the new young first violinist would meld with the three older players- but it was great to see the older players were in tip-top form to match that of their new first violinist, the young and virtuosic Joseph Lin. The First and Second violinists in particular, seemed to play so well together, their movements and gestures in complete and harmonious synchrony. The slow movement was very special in the quality of sound, phrasing and atmosphere that all four players created. My only gripe was in the fourth and final movement, the tempo was so fast that some of the musicality may have been lost. With the tempo indication as “Allegro molto”, the Juilliard String Quartet performed it as a “Prestissimo”- and yet they did it so convincingly, with such absolute precision and virtuosity, and real visceral excitement, resulting in standing ovation from the appreciative audience. In the hands of any lesser an ensemble, this finale movement tempo could have resulted in a complete train wreck; as a testament to the great skill of all four players- it did not. Summary: “Bravo” for the Beethoven, bland Bach, abstruse Berg.