When a string quartet changes its personnel, it becomes a different quartet, even if the name remains. Five and a half years ago, when the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild last invited the Juilliard String Quartet, we commented about the change brought about by the new first violinist Joel Smirnoff, replacing the quartet’s long-time leader Robert Mann. At the time, we attributed their difficulties to the integration of a new first violin into such an entrenched ensemble.
Last Sunday, the Juilliard was back, playing to as full a house as we’ve ever seen at an RCMG concert. Clearly, folks were willing to sacrifice a beautiful Sunday afternoon to hear one of the great names in the string quartet business. Violinists Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick continue to comprise the Juilliard's configuration. And unfortunately, the concert illustrated that, some of our original concerns still applied, elapsed time notwithstanding — nowhere more so than in the first work on the program, Haydn's Quartet in D Major, Op.76, No.5. Again, Smirnoff's playing was the issue. While his full-voiced playing is clear and forceful, the pianos are tentative, even to the point where his bow trembles on the string. In rapid passages he has a tendency to slide quickly over notes like a speaker who swallows some of his consonants. In general, he seemed to lack the leadership so necessary for the first violinist. The Quartet also opened the first movement, allegretto, very slowly, which made for too little contrast with the Larghetto second movement, the core of the piece.
Things improved considerably, however, with the second work, Béla Bartók's String Quartet No.3, probably the most difficult of Bartók's quartets for both players and audience. Bartók's quartets have always been among Juilliard's flagship works, and this performance simply crackled. The Juilliard clearly was in its element, to judge from precision and emotional intensity of the performance.
The Juilliard is now a traditional ensemble from whom we should not expect sizzlingly original programming, but the RCMG's program committee did have a small menu of programs to choose from. While we certainly had no quarrel with the less often performed Bartók 3 and even the quirky Haydn with its "backward" finale, it seems that we can hardly go a season around here without a performance of Dvorák's "American" Quartet, which ended the program. The overall performance, including body language, was extremely romantic, milking every phrase for all its emotional worth. We had the same concerns, however, about Smirnoff's playing, although we thought it more assured than in the Haydn.
Dvorák composed many quartets, some of them wonderful works, and the Juilliard's encore showed us what we are missing when we return constantly to old favorites. The Scherzo from the Quartet in C Major, Op.61, simply whetted our appetite for more of the less performed Dvorák.
At a time when there is a plethora of outstanding string quartets, this latest incarnation of the Juilliard may need to cede its place as one of the best. Neither the Quartet nor the times is as it was nearly sixty years ago, when the original Juilliard first burst on the scene daring us to listen to Bartók and other musical "outlaws."