The Juilliard String Quartet plays Beethoven, Bartók, and Dvořák

The Juilliard String Quartet plays Beethoven, Bartók, and Dvořák

THE MUSIC

Beethoven’s Quartet op. 59, no. 2 in E minor, Rasumovsky

Beethoven’s Opus 59 includes three quartets the composer wrote to pay homage to Count Andreas Rasumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, and a sponsor and friend of the composer.

In the energetic first and fourth movements of his Quartet op. 59, no. 2 in E minor, Beethoven dazzles the listener with his unending inventiveness. But it is the second movement of the Quartet that which moved the composer and pianist Carl Czerny, a friend of the composer, to write how this music must have come to Beethoven “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.”

Later, in the third movement of the quartet the composer honors his Russian friend by miraculously using and transforming a Russian folk hymn that would much later be heard in the coronation scene of the opera Boris Godunov, a work written several decades after the 1808 Rasumovsky quartets.  That Russian Orthodox theme of praise to the Divine can also be heard in Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa, in a Rachmaninoff piano composition, and in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, seemingly as if those Russian composers had wanted to follow in the Bonn master’s footsteps all the while celebrating their Russian heritage.

Bela Bartók Quartet no. 3

The 1927 composition of the single-movement, fifteen-minute-brief, Third Quartet preceded Bartók’s first visit to America, when he came to collect a $6,000 composition prize and, at the end of 1928, to hear his work performed by a quartet integrated by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The blunt, though by no means coarse music of this quartet is, in the composer’s own words, “… peasant music, real old music, one-part music…unconventional and liberal in its use of rhythm… elements almost unknown to so-called ‘romantic’ music.”

Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet in F major, Opus 96, “American”

Franz Kneisel became the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony in 1885, and later the head of the violin department at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City, eventually renamed the Juilliard School. The German violinist’s Kneisel Quartet gave the first performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet in F major, Opus 96, a work firmly anchored in pure Americana.

As director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, the composer gradually became an admirer of the multi-cultural currents of American music, strengthening his deep belief that music must ever be rooted in what is truly national, and, in the case of this remarkable composition, in the musical strains of American culture.

After an exhausting first year in his New York City post, Dvořák spent a summer in a village in Iowa in the company of many fellow Czechs and in contact with nature. He wrote in a letter, “I was walking in the woods and heard birdsong for the first time in months.” African-American and Native American melodies – some authentic, some born in the composer’s mind, along with music that can express in its own terms the sounds of nature served to inspire this beloved composition.

THE PERFORMANCE

In this recording, the four members of the Juilliard Quartet – Areta Zhulla, violin (the quartet’s newest member); Ronald Copes, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello – celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding with the sort of elegantly executed, musically impassioned, technically flawless playing that has earned their ensemble its reputation as one of the finest string quartets in the world.

Steven Epstein is both the gifted producer and engineer of this impeccably engineered and packaged release.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Missing the real thing

All across our country the performing arts have been on a kind of deep-freeze. Large organizations like the Metropolitan Opera have bled enormous amounts in lost ticket revenues with no end in sight, while musicians, chorus members, principal singers, stage hands, and artistic-administrative personnel live on, barely scraping by financially, some relocating outside of New York, others moving in with parents, while waiting for it all to be over.

In Cincinnati, a microcosm of the larger national arts debacle, live theatres remain closed, while the larger and financially resilient, such as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play a limited number of performances with reduced orchestral forces, in shorter, intermission-less concerts, to socially-distanced audiences.

Summer-arts organizations hold off announcing their plans hoping things will soon change. Same goes for the smaller arts organizations, some of which may never come back. Cincinnati’s two major museums – the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Art Museum linger on with reduced hours and no major exhibits.

The College-Conservatory of Music – in its heyday the largest presenter of live arts events in the State of Ohio – is exclusively presenting digital performances with carefully-distanced student musicians and dancers, while its ensemble-centric programs – musical theatre and opera – remain on hold for the time being. After a one-year hiatus the 173 year old Cincinnati May Festival bounces back in a modest version of its old self when it opens on May 2 with three programs of mostly smaller pieces involving reduced forces.

Audience members manage to get by watching on-line performances – many archival ones dating back years – of operas and concerts available on You Tube, the Metropolitan Opera’s digital presentations, and European on-line sources like Opera Vision. But every music and theatre and visual arts fan of my acquaintance aches for the return of the unique and irreplaceable in-person experiences of sitting in a concert hall or a darkened theatre or standing in front of a work of art in a museum as great art unfolds before our eyes and ears.

In a private exchange a musician friend wrote:  “I had to take a year off and start a business venture, in case our orchestra world imploded! I could certainly share what our experience has been during the pandemic and how that will impact us moving forward.”

Oh, how we understand!

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS