Juilliard Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Bad habits come to the four
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The Independent Culture

The Juilliard Quartet is unusually venerable for a chamber group, though its last original member, Robert Mann, retired as first violinist five years ago. The longest serving member in the present line-up is the viola player, who joined in 1969. A quartet's identity is an odd sort of thing, because it's always changing. Beginning their concert on Saturday with Haydn's "Sunrise" Quartet, Op.76 no 4, the first violin, Joel Smirnoff, had some trouble with intonation and played flat in both the exposition and its repeat. Yet, it was the cellist who retuned before the slow movement. Here the group's impression of secrecy was attractive, though, it must be said, their collective sound was somewhat faded and the first violin made some scrawny sounds in the Minuet. But there was no doubt about their unanimity – no question of anyone playing for himself.

In Beethoven's concise and powerful Op 95 Quartet, the players seemed more settled and there was no tuning between movements – a bad habit which is more often than not unnecessary. If the dynamic range was hardly enormous, the tight rhythmic attack compensated, though the second movement began too loudly for "mezza voce" as marked, and why did the cello make such a meal of his stealthy downward scale? Otherwise, the performance was as disciplined as it was unexaggerated. The transition to the scherzo, hushed before an explosion, was especially well done.

After these familiar classics, the second half was devoted to Sibelius's only Quartet, an important work which, unaccountably, quartets are rather shy of playing. Although Sibelius himself called it "Voces Intimae", it has many features familiar in his symphonies, both in its methods of continuity and development and in its textures. In the slow movement, strands of accompaniment are varied in a way recalling the resourcefulness of Schubert, though there any comparison ends. In the first movement, very rich both in basic ideas and their treatment, yet leaving a satisfying sense of unfinished business, the Juilliard indulged in too much squashy tone production – they have a bad habit of squeezing sustained notes – and the way they prolonged each upbeat at the beginning was puzzling. The first scherzo, with its typical tremolando writing was fine. But the second, an emphatic D minor piece with passages where chains of triplets suggest a howling wind (another feature from Sibelius's symphonies), was surely too mild and lacked austerity. Still, the scurrying final movement, driven relentlessly to its end, certainly had its effect on the capacity audience.

The encore was "Contrapunctus 4" from Bach's Art of Fugue.

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