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Three Played by Four

Juilliard String Quartet Opens CAMA’s Masterseries at the
Lobero Season

by James Hanley Donelan

On Friday, Mozart will conduct the Juilliard String Quartet at
the Lobero — at least in spirit. Quartets usually conduct
themselves anyway, and this quartet — a distinguished 60-year-old
institution — has recently had direct access to the autograph
manuscripts of some of the most important works ever written for
four strings: Mozart’s E-flat Major, D Minor, and C Major
quartets
 — three of the six he dedicated to Franz Joseph
Haydn. As the personal composer to a prince of the Habsburg Empire
and the inventor of the genre, Haydn certainly deserved this
tribute, but Mozart’s skillful references to Haydn’s works were so
astonishing that Haydn changed his own style in response. The
Juilliard String Quartet has a gift for bringing out these nuances
in performance, as well as for finding new beauty in familiar works
and rediscovering nearly forgotten masterpieces. I recently spoke
to Samuel Rhodes, the group’s violist and senior member, from his
home in New York.

Tell us about these Mozart manuscripts. What did you
learn from them?
Well, it’s complicated  — Mozart first
wrote these quartets, and later made corrections, so you have to
look at both the manuscripts and the corrections to see how they
should be played. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what he
meant, but it’s wonderful to have these manuscripts available. The
chairman of the board at the Juilliard School collected manuscripts
and first editions, and he recently gave his entire collection to
the school, including these editions of Mozart’s six “Haydn”
quartets, so that scholars could work with them. They’ve got their
own room in the library there, along with Mozart’s handwritten wind
parts for the last scene of The Marriage of Figaro, and a number of
other things.

So performing with your group involves some serious
scholarship.
Absolutely. We’ve been the
quartet-in-residence at the Library of Congress for forty years,
and we’ve been able to play their matched set of Stradivarius
instruments from the Whittall collection — they’re wonderful. We
also had a chance last year to play another set of Stradivarius
instruments when we went to Madrid, a beautiful set in the royal
collection of Spain. They were originally commissioned by a Spanish
king, and they’re beautifully inlaid. All these instruments have to
be played once in while to keep them sounding the way they should,
so that when we play these instruments, we’re not just performing
with them, we’re also keeping them alive.

The quartet has been responsible for keeping a number of
works alive too, hasn’t it?
Yes, we’ve always been proud
of the way we’ve been able to revive works that have fallen out of
the repertory, as well as our ability to play works in contexts
that give them new meaning and depth. For instance, our group was
one of the first to play the entire Beethoven cycle in the 20th
century — and now, any quartet of any stature must play Beethoven.
His quartets have absolutely fantastic artistic range.

I noticed that on your last recording of a Beethoven
quartet, No. 13, you played the extremely challenging Grosse Fuge
for the finale, rather than its far easier alternate ending. What
was your thinking behind that?
That finale, the Grosse
Fuge, is one of the most difficult works ever written for string
quartet, but it’s the ending that Beethoven really meant the work
to have — his publisher insisted on the easier, alternate version.
Still, that part of the work was almost never played late in the
19th century and early in the 20th. For instance, the Budapest
String Quartet, our predecessors as the string quartet-in-residence
at Juilliard, never played No. 13 with the Grosse Fuge finale; for
them, the Grosse Fuge was a separate work. Beethoven had written it
as an answer to people who said that he didn’t write counterpoint
well, and he rose to the challenge magnificently. It really belongs
to the rest of the work organically, but the other finale, the
rondo, is great, too, so we play it on alternating performances of
the work. I’ve heard that Beethoven’s late quartets had a
strong influence on 20th-century quartet composition — do you find
that when you perform those works?
Yes, definitely.
Schönberg’s quartets represent a similar pioneering spirit, and we
like to bring that out. We’ve also done a lot with Bartók,
performing seven complete cycles of his quartets — we were the
first to do so when we played them at Tanglewood in 1948. It’s all
part of a living tradition.

We’re looking forward to your concert here in Santa
Barbara. Do you have anything to add?
The three Mozart
quartets that we’re playing in Santa Barbara are some of the
wonders of the world, and we always love playing there. We’re
looking forward to it, too.

4•1•1
The Juilliard String Quartet will appear at the
Lobero Theatre on Friday, November 17 at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or
visit lobero.com.

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