February 10, 2009

High Times with Haydn

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The Juilliard String Quartet, the granddaddy of American string quartets, played an all-Haydn program in Bailey Hall on Sunday. To hear such a vaunted group whose renown is based on their precise, graceful style perform the works of a composer who is the epitome of precise, graceful classical music is less to hear an interpretation per se than to feel definitively transported. How does one measure the standard itself, as if one sought to niggle with the canonic metric rule locked in its bank vault in Paris?
If anything, one is reduced to pleading with the very institutional structures that keep their rule under lock-and-key. By this, I mean the concert had some of the stiff air of stuffy concert-going etiquette. Despite the group’s subtle elasticity of tempo and near telepathic modulation of dynamics, they lacked the flair of obvious showmanship or gestures of obsequiousness to the audience. They seemed, at times, to be exquisite specimens in a fishbowl; even their final bows were a little formal and perfunctory. Yet, when the concert’s spell was broken, I was amazed to find it had been over two hours long, so commandingly rapt had I been the entire time.
In selecting these works, the Juilliard Quartet has chosen to re-examine the wellspring whereby Haydn began establishing the gravitas and expanding the expressive range of string quartets, codifying the four movement form of the genre and making the ensemble arrangement Western music’s archetypal chamber group. With the development and subsequent dominance of the string quartet, music for music’s sake was born. The instruments have been purified from being subservient to an extra-musical occasion, such as religious devotion, operatic drama or social dance. Yet the minuet movement gives the lie to this claim, being an attenuated dance form. It reminds us that music is never pure, but inherently sullied with ecstasy and performance, as well as the bodies that make and listen to it.
All the pieces were from Haydn’s Opus 20, written during an intense period in the early 1770’s in which Haydn inexplicably turned to writing string quartets and thereby changed the shape of the subsequent history of music. The performance began with the No. 5 in F minor, which began luxuriantly and worked up to fever pitch while still being more delicate than darksome. The other three instrumentalists mainly had supporting roles to Joel Smirnoff on first violin until the last movement’s fugue, in which all four members had a chance to strut their chops, building an architectonic grandeur of well balanced sound. It ended with a lively crescendo dash that suddenly broke into a brief silence wherein the group’s eyes mutually glistened, waiting for the exact moment to resume the final flourish of the few remaining bars.
The next piece, the No. 4 in D Major, began with an allegro movement with gently rocking rhythm counterpointed by quick and flashy interruptions. The second movement may have been my favorite of the performance: the first violin dropped out to allow Joel Krosnick on the cello to take the lead. Krosnick lent a deeper, more meditative quality with his almost mournful vibrato until Smirnoff bounced back in with a lighter, playful tone again until he was later joined in tandem by Ronald Copes on second violin. In the minuet that followed, the joyful, energetic tone was kept, but the cello snuck in the last word. The piece was culminated with the Presto e Scherzando finale with its brazen fiddle-sawing contrasted with witty slides.
The No. 3 in G Minor began with a subdued vivacity that modulated over the different movements from a slow, quiet heavenly blending of the strings to conjuring the sumptuous crystal-like world of the Esterházy palace with dance-like set pieces as if each instrument linked arms, coupled off then exchanged partners. For the No. 2 in C Major, Samuel Rhodes on viola had his most extended time to shine while Krosnick had a chance to show off his double stops. But it was Smirnoff’s panache on his trilling high notes that verged but never descended into schmaltz, as he rolled his eyes and rocked up and down in his seat, which stole the limelight.
At a few points, Smirnoff’s feet came off the ground while rollicking, only to cause a rather loud tapping when he came down. Such élan might be encouraged as good fun in another context, but given the tendentious smoothness of the quartet’s manner, the clicking felt distracting. Also, I swear (somewhat in disbelief, I admit) that I heard Krosnick whisper something to the violins; again, it was a moment that could have been revelatory of music-in-the-making, except that it disrupted the air of finesse that had, until then, been achieved.
No matter how masterful a rendition of a piece of music may be, its glory and limitation is that it must remain an interpretation. While the Juilliard String Quartet may have their eminence grandfathered in a charming precision that accords well with Haydn’s quartets, their performance remains but one version among many, stressing ever so slightly the finicky over the frolicsome, the éclat of polish over the ecstasy of passion.