The Juilliard Quartet gave a strangely dispirited program Saturday night, which somehow never became airborne, through a combination of unattractive programming and playing not quite up to par.
Sometimes they sounded like four musicians thrown together, rather than one of the most prominent quartets in the country. The first violinist often disappointed with a lack of the spirit, romance and imagination that should spark the whole quartet. The second violinist sounded more assertive than the first, a frequent drawback in ensemble. The violist's tone was heavy and colorless. Only the cellist sounded ready for first-rate playing.Mozart's Quartet in A Major, K. 464, went well enough, though one felt all along it was minor Mozart - its themes pleasant and graceful but without truly engaging verve or dash - which left the listener with the feeling, "OK, let's see what comes next."
What came next was Elliott Carter's Quartet No. 2, a work that commands intellectual respect but little love. I am automatically discouraged when I read in a program note, "four different strands of musical material of contrasting character are developed simultaneously." To me, that spells "musical catfight." And while there were a few stretches in this quartet that became congruent and even appealing, the total effect was disjointed, notionate, discordant and disagreeable.
Granted, new music often affects its audience as strange and inaccessible. But true music soon moves toward the mainstream or creates new mainstreams. Such has been the case with many "modern" composers of the past half century - Prokofiev, Bartok, Britten, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Berg, to name a few.
Bartok's music, for example, may have impressed listeners at first as mere blueprints. But these compositions contained every element necessary to become challenging musical houses where generations of loving performers and listeners have become comfortable.
Carter's music is still in the blueprint stage; his angularities, discords, shocks and alarums have never become home to American music lovers. After 50 years, he is still hard going. How many people know four bars of Elliott Carter music that they can hum? Should he be performed? Not unless he can be revealed as music to listeners as knowledgeable and open-minded as the Chamber Series audience, many of whom voted with their feet at intermission.
After such cerebral exercise, one anticipated the Ravel Quartet in F Major with considerable pleasure; but true musicality still escaped this group, which sounded as if it were suffering from jet lag.
The first few phrases, deliberate to the point of slowness, correctly presaged a draggy, plodding interpretation. Even the pizzicato scherzo never became truly animated. The slow movement became almost soporific, without intensity or sense of being pulled along by the momentum of the piece. Whenever the viola entered, it was toneless and spiritless, accounting for some bad anticlimaxes. The finale finally came together, with some quite galvanic final phrases.
Long a treasure of the repertory, Ravel's quartet exemplifies the best in Gallic music, overflowing with lilting melody, even rapturous moments. This interpretation suggested four people walking beside a field of fresh spring flowers, but never dancing among them, picking them or savoring their fragrance.