Juilliard String Quartet

Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 3, 14 & 15

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One has to ask: how does the new Juilliard String Quartet with Joel Smirnoff as the first violinist compare with the old Juilliard String Quartet with Robert Mann as the first violinist? It depends on which old Juilliard you mean. The early Mann-led Juilliard of the '50s and '60s was arguably the finest American string quartet of its time with a clean, bright sound and a sharp, incisive attack. The later Mann-led Juilliard of the '70s and '80s was marred by too many mannerisms and Mann's own often out-of-tune playing. But how does this Juilliard, which retains the same players while adding Ronald Copes to take Smirnoff's place on second violin, compare with either previous Juilliard in this recording of three quartets and a quintet by Shostakovich? Better than the late Juilliard, certainly, but not in the same league as the earlier Juilliard at its height. In works that have become central to the string quartet repertoire, the Juilliard's interpretations are neither too high nor too low but rather straight down the middle -- and none too exciting at that. At its best, the climaxes in the Third and Fourteenth quartets' finales are only adequate and the intensity in the Fifteenth Quartet's opening fugue is merely acceptable. At its worst, the interpretations sound thoroughly disengaged. With the too wiry tone and too comfortable ensemble, the new Juilliard Quartet is ultimately simply mediocre. Pianist Yefim Bronfman has a solid technique and a big tone, but he also appears to have little feeling for the piano quintet. Sony's sound is clear but a bit too distant.

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