Time was when the meeting of the Juilliard String Quartet and Mozart was more like a mugging than a friendly encounter. One suffered the cuffing about of the Classic, itching--as were the players themselves--for involvement in the coming storms and stresses of Bartok and Beethoven: music that could take it.

All three composers were represented on Thursday for the finale of the Juilliard's season-spanning series at Ambassador Auditorium. And, as has been the case throughout 1986-87, there were no low points, no slighting of one composer in preparation for, or at the expense of, another.

The Juilliard is in incomparable form these days: Their concerts are object lessons in the art of ensemble playing and the art of communicating the essence of the music at hand, whatever its period or style.

The lyric refinement, the aristocratic hauteur of Mozart's Quartet in D, K. 575, were projected with blithe delicacy--and an underpinning of rhythmic steel. This was the Juilliard sound at its lightest and purest, the ensemble personality at its most gracious.

Bartok has been a Juilliard priority since the ensemble's founding 40-plus years ago by first violinist Robert Mann, the sole remaining member of the original group. Today's Bartok-by-Juilliard is, however, nothing like the earth-shaking experience of even half a dozen years ago.

On this occasion, in the Fifth Quartet, the current model Juilliard--violinists Mann and Joel Smirnoff, violist Samuel Rhodes, cellist Joel Krosnick--showed that it can be as romantic, as sweet-toned as any Hungarian ensemble without invalidating the tensions and dark passions of the composer's inspiration.

The players gave their audience--and themselves--no quarter in an extraordinarily long, arduous program by concluding with what may well the most demanding, physically and emotionally, of Beethoven's quartets: the work in C-sharp minor, Opus 131. It was played with a degree of technical and formal mastery that, simply, beggars description.

Beethoven--and Mozart and Bartok and, indeed, string quartet playing--doesn't get any better than this.

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