Various: Die Kunst der Fuge (excerpts); String Quartet in C, Op. 59/3 (Rasumovsky); String Quartet in F, Op. 135; String Quartet in D, Op. 76/5

WORKS: Die Kunst der Fuge (excerpts); String Quartet in C, Op. 59/3 (Rasumovsky); String Quartet in F, Op. 135; String Quartet in D, Op. 76/5
PERFORMER: Juilliard Quartet with Rudolf Firkusny´, Aaron Copland, Jorge Bolet, Leonard Bernstein (piano), Walter Trampler (viola), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Harold Wright (clarinet), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar)


These six volumes, with one possible exception, present a considered exploration of the achievements from 1949 to 1995 of the ten men (Robert Mann, the leader, ‘carrying his bow’ from the beginning in 1946) whose analytical skill and emotional interdependence embody the qualities of chamber-music trust akin to those of a bomb disposal squad.


Astonishing virtuosity can easily be taken for granted. It is certainly to their credit that any sense of ‘How do they do that?’ never comes between the music and the listener. Long associated with the quartets of Bartók, the Juilliard’s original members launch the first volume with a 1949 performance of the Fourth Quartet which all but bleeds with their dedication to the newness and visceral genius of the work.


Sureness of dynamic variation, startling glissandi and those Bartók pizzicato ‘snaps’, which make one fear the safety of poor Strads everywhere, continue to illuminate later recordings of the Third and Sixth Quartets. These performances at least equal those of the favoured Tokyo or Emerson ensembles.


Vol. 2 begins with fairly vibrato-rich excerpts from Bach’s Art of Fugue – so intensely serious and committed that they persuade me utterly. I have more doubts about some of the Beethoven interpretations. As always such things are a matter of taste and fine judgement but, wondering whether the fugal finale of Op. 59/3, for example, was a white-knuckle ride of exhilarating virtuosity or a bit of a show-off, I tended towards the latter. Similarly, I felt the need for more sense of significance in the quartet’s playing of Op. 135.


In Vols 3 and 4, the Mozart’s finale might lack the ultimate bubble of champagne fizz, but the Debussy – so very passionate and alive to flexibility of nuance – is my favoured performance of a work where ‘Frenchness’ can so often mean a rather clinically cool approach.


The discs of collaborations boast, ironically, some very partisan partners. Firkusny´ aids the quartet in its pursuit of Bohemian Romanticism in the Dvorák. Bernstein’s identification with Schumann in no way mars an adventurous and highly competitive performance. What more could you want than Copland’s participation in his own ballet-inviting Sextet? The Barber is a benchmark recording and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is rich in lyrical interest.