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Grand Nationalism

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
01/19/2000 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3 "Emperor"
Bela Bartok: Quartet # 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet # 8

Juilliard String Quartet

A conventional discussion of nationalism in music would probably not include any significant thoughts about either Haydn or Beethoven. The Germanic hegemony of Western music precludes the idea that Teutonic self-congratulation is anything but the natural order of things. And yet both of these giants spent musical time on the idea of various home and father lands and last night’s evening with the Juilliard Quartet explored two of their essays in this field contrasted with the multiculturalism of that greatest of all ethnomusicologists Bela Bartok. The performance, taped for broadcast on public television, was stunning and showed once again how great chamber music can be when all members are committed to play as one acoustical organism.

The Haydn is the quartet which introduces the theme destined to become the German national anthem. It is a complex portrait of the sovereign and more Beethovenian in its concepts than virtually any of the other examples in "Papa’s" vast repertoire, treating themes not as simple conversation and comfortable reminders of deist optimism, but rather as ruminative and intellectual exercises on the nature of emotion itself. The famous theme is played slowly and reverentially and it was more than a little disconcerting to hear Deutschland Ueber Alles in a traditionally Jewish venue like the 92nd St. Y. It’s funny how individual combinations of notes can conjure up such images of hatred and intolerance and yet be designed by their original composer to be uplifting and life-affirming. The entire debate about Wagner in Israel centers around such associations and the excess baggage attached to the music seems much more powerful than the actual anti-Semitism of the composers (after all they play Moussorgsky and Stravinsky in Tel Aviv). In any case, hearing the original played so lovingly reinforces our faith in the ultimate healing power of great music and the unlimited potential for art to do good.

That same conventional discussion would attribute most of Bartok’s inspiration to the music of Hungary and its neighbors but listening to the second quartet one is struck by themes and intervals more familiar to the regions of Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. In Tashkent today there are people singing these augmented fourths and minor seconds as naturally as Westerners sing major triads. The killer movement in the entire Bartok quartet output is the middle movement of the second and it was a joy to hear such dedicated musicians so obviously caring over every pause and pluck. Special praise goes to the incredibly beautiful solo playing of first violinist Joel Smirnoff who recognizes the sheer ecstasy of these exotic melodies. The contrast of the wild dance with the lovely lyricism is really the essence of this work and yet is almost never projected properly. Having just heard a limp performance of the Shostakovich Piano Trio # 2 with its fourth movement theme structurally similar to the intense main theme of this movement, it was particularly thrilling to hear the Juilliard’s spine-tingling plunges from major to minor (actually only in spirit since the whole idea of major/minor is turned on its ear in this amazing essay). Even the conservative Y crowd was thrilled with this exceptional string playing.

In an homage to his benefactor Count Razumovsky, Beethoven includes that marvelous Russian folk tune which served as the de facto national anthem for so long in the 19th century. For those unfamiliar with this quartet, it is the central theme of the Coronation Scene from Boris and is also quoted in several other Russian works as well as the Symphony # 3 of Muzio Clemente. The Juilliard did a great job of weaving this theme in and out, emphasizing its lyrical quality while still playing the entire quartet in a very tight manner. Inexplicably many people walked out during the Beethoven, leaving only a small crowd down in front for the TV cameras. I’m sure that they can edit out all those empty seats and produce a program praiseworthy enough to communicate to the general public the fine reception that this quartet deserves.
Now in their second generation, the Juilliard has been a standard bearer for fine quartet playing since the ‘50’s and shows no sign of flagging in the 00 decade.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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