I've always admired the Juilliard String Quartet (henceforth referred to as JSQ), though with the subliminal feeling they were not the most distinguished quartet around. But always a pleasure to listen to. I was actually surprised, perusing my shelves, to find just how many of their discs I have collected over the decades. I was equally surprised to read in the excellent booklet that this release marks the 75th Anniversary of the JSQ. And it is a knock-out.
I was enticed by this release because of the programing and also because they have a new first violinist. I was thinking both things would spark new heights of performance excellence from the group. And, happily, I was right!
Interestingly, this is the second new string quartet release which sneaks in Bartok's 3rd amongst other, seemingly unrelated quartets. The first was a 2020 disc from the Quatuor Modigliani on Mirare. Their Bartok is surrounded by Mozart and Haydn; and this one from JSQ by Beethoven and Dvorak. Weird. I personally find it difficult to acknowledge the Bartok being a good bedfellow with the others on either program. And I certainly don't hear it that way either (especially since the 3rd is actually my least favorite of the 6). But that's just me.
Beginning with the Beethoven Op. 59 #2, I was instantly captivated - engrossed by the energetic, thoroughly engaging music-making. The booklet confirms this is the debut recording of the group with its new first violinist, Areta Zhulla. I don't know how much that alone contributes to the outstanding performances, or how much SONY's absolutely SUPERB recorded sound does (I suspect both), but I have simply run out of superlatives to describe this Beethoven.
There is a unified, homogenous blend here - in both interpretation and ensemble - which is simply miraculous. Their precision of playing, musical expression, and articulation are wonderous to behold. Their tempos are perfectly chosen and dynamics are invigorating. I hear so many recordings of string quartets which either minimize dynamics to enhance richness of blend, or eschew musical values and go all out in fortissimos, turning unpleasantly aggressive. This group does neither. Dynamic contrasts are natural and realistically wide, yet their beauty of tone and blend remains constant at all volumes. It really is amazing, actually, because few groups can match it. And SONY's rich, warm, yet clean and detailed recorded sound compliments it perfectly. PERFECTLY. I can't emphasize this enough.
A few weeks ago, I encountered the Dover Quartet's sensational 2-disc set of Beethoven Op. 18 Quartets on Cedille, and I thought then that recordings of Beethoven Quartets simply don't come any better. Well, the JSQ (and SONY) match them in every parameter. So much so that I crave more Beethoven from both groups.
Moving on. While I love Bartok's orchestral music, I admit with a little embarrassment I'm not a big fan of his chamber music, especially his String Quartets. (Although the Tokyo String Quartet's 1970s set, now on a 2013 Eloquence two-fer, almost convinces me otherwise.) So I can't really comment on this account of his 3rd with much expertise, other than to say it was a little more palatable and made more sense to my ears than usual. And again, SONY cannot be praised enough in this regard. Perhaps the plush sound polishes off the edges just a bit, but it allowed me to enjoy it a little more than I usually do. I just can't help but imagine it would be better appreciated in the company of other modern, 20th-Century quartets.
Rounding off the concert, we get an absolutely glorious Dvorak American Quartet, played with such enchantment, I was moved beyond words. The first movement flows with an exuberant Allegro (yet while still observing the non troppo indication), which drew me in more than usual. The two vivace movements are exhilarating, but never breathless. I don't ever remember the finale dancing quite this jubilantly. (I'm not one to dance around the room, but I found it difficult to sit still for this!) But I think what struck me the most about this performance as a whole, is the absence of over-emoting. The slow movement, for example, flows with such a natural outpouring of heartfelt expression, it really is a wonder to behold. And throughout, this group never goes out of its way to make a musical point. ("Just listen to what we're doing here!") No, their music-making is utterly natural in its simplicity and sheer musicality.
Aside from all the specific descriptions above, I became aware of two notables while listening to this disc which most clearly illustrate my reaction to it. 1) I was not for a moment distracted (well, except maybe during the Bartok); I couldn't force myself to take notes, nor could I walk away from the stereo for an instant. And, 2) I kept turning the music up. Anytime I frequently grab the remote to turn the stereo down, I know something is amiss - either musically or technically, or both. But this SONY had me grabbing for the remote often - to turn it up. And every time, I became even more involved and drawn further into the music. The sound didn't just become louder, it became more engaging and real. The first violin never becomes bright or strident, and the cello never becomes gruff or bloated. It's just natural.
I have been listening to new releases mostly on smaller, independent and specialty labels lately, because I usually experience higher quality and more engaging performances from them. Therefore, I was absolutely thrilled that a major label like SONY can still produce such a fabulous-sounding recording such as this one. However, the complete absence of printed track playing times quickly reminded me of the inattention to important details often exhibited by the major labels (tsk tsk.) That quibble aside, I haven't been this excited about a new CD in a long time and I recommend it more highly than most. It is surely one of my favorite discs of the year so far.