MUSIC / Visitors from the New World: Anthony Payne on the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard Quartet

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The Independent Culture
TWO OF America's greatest cultural institutions were visiting London this week, the New York Philharmonic and their music director Kurt Masur, and the Juilliard String Quartet. Each was contributing to one of the South Bank's international concert series; under the circumstances it is surprising that the orchestra was not encouraged to steer further away from the well- worn paths of the standard repertory. In the first of the Philharmonic's two programmes they gave us Mozart's Sinfonia concertante K364, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel and Brahms's Second Symphony, while the second included Barber's Adagio and Dvorak's New World Symphony.

The latter programme also presented the concerts' one unfamiliar piece: the Chinese-born, American- based Bright Sheng's 'H'un' (lacerations): In Memoriam, a title that alludes to the agonising consequences of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The piece falls into two parts, the first a prolonged, vehement protest, all jabbing chords, violent flurries and tensely vibrating static harmonies, the second a slow-paced lament that eventually dies away to discrete, scattered objets sonores. If the lament's still textures seemed to lack the density of harmonic and thematic meaning to counter-balance the exacerbated first section, the work as a whole still made a powerful impression and was characterised with great expressive intensity by the orchestra.

The Barber and Dvorak, while hardly complementing either each other or the contemporary item, did enable us to relish the orchestra's discipline and cohesion. The smoothly integrated sonority of the strings in Barber's Adagio was a delight, while the brass section's security of attack and noble weight of tone could be constantly admired in the Dvorak.

If anything was lacking, it was a bright presence in the wind department. There were honourable exceptions, and the cor anglais contributed exquisitely to the famous 'Largo', but elsewhere Dvorak's vibrant writing did not always make its full, piquant effect. For the rest, Masur shaped the work with care, achieving visionary eruptions of sound in the finale and a magical transition into the middle section of the 'Largo'.

The following night, in a more cogently planned programme, the Juilliard delighted us with Haydn, Janacek and Brahms. Taking a few moments to settle to their task, the players were soon unfolding the matchless dialectic of Haydn's Op 20 No 2 - the marvellous Adagio delivered with an inventive freedom, the final fugue beautifully controlled at Haydn's sotto voce to explode fortissimo on the final pages with exhilarating power.

Then, after capturing the quality of speaking emotion that makes such a movingly personal document of Janacek's First Quartet, they gave passionate voice to Brahms's A Minor. The density of texture was elucidated by the harmonic sensitivity and rhythmic point of the playing.