Beethoven: String quartet Op. 131, etc./Juilliard

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 6

One of the most tightly knit Juilliard Quartet lineups featured charter member first violinist Robert Mann, second violinist Isadore Cohen, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Claus Adam. Their exceptional acuity and tonal astringency is italicized by the close, analytical microphone placement characterizing the recordings they made in the late 1950s and early 1960s for both RCA Victor and Columbia Masterworks. This 1960 Beethoven Op. 131 particularly hits home in the realm of linear clarity. Note, for instance, the perfectly contoured inner voices in the fourth movement’s opening theme, the frighteningly uniform articulation of the finale’s declaratory unisons, or the sheer speed and rock-steady precision with which the ensemble aligns the fifth-movement Presto. Yet I miss the opening fugue’s hushed mystery, the second movement’s inward grace (the Juilliard members push the music a bit harder than necessary), or the element of surprise that should greet the transitional recitative prior to the aforementioned variations. To be fair, the Juilliard Quartet recorded the work twice more, and to more flexible results each time.

Although the ensemble’s 1959 Schubert Death and the Maiden is similarly spotlit, the sound is a little warmer and bass-present. The musicians strike a happy balance between relentless drive and lyrical repose in the first movement (how effortlessly they slip into the coda!) while holding the long slow movement together by virtue of carefully calibrated tempo relationships and dynamic scaling. They take Schubert’s Presto indication to heart in the finale and take your breath away with soft playing marked by stunning hair-trigger definition. I still feel that the Quartetto Italiano’s ghostly deliberation better conveys the music’s tragic undertones: they relate to Claudio Arrau as the Juilliards do to Friedrich Gulda. In all, this is a fascinating, sometimes controversial, and often gripping reissue.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Beethoven: Vegh Quartet (Naïve), Schubert: Auryn Quartet (CPO)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor Op. 131
FRANZ SCHUBERT - Quartet No. 14 in D minor D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)

Share This Review: