In top musical and mechanical form, the Juilliard Quartet returned to Pasadena on Wednesday night for an exemplary and provocative performance. This time, the ensemble surveyed with fresh ears works of familiar aspect--Haydn's Quartet in B minor, Opus 33, No. 1, and Beethoven's Opus 127. Then, for the centerpiece of its agenda, the Juilliard offered a striking relic of the 1950s, Gunther Schuller's First Quartet.
With that irrepressible spontaneity that is its trademark, the Juilliard--violinists Robert Mann and Joel Smirnoff, violist Samuel Rhodes, cellist Joel Krosnick--tore into these three works like proselytizers of the unconverted: making every phrase speak, every statement count.
It is this sense of mission, as much as the group's resplendent technical accomplishments, that makes every Juilliard Quartet concert so persuasive; the importance of each score, as an individual work deserving of the deepest partisanship, comes across with unflagging conviction.
So it was Wednesday that Haydn's B-minor Quartet became imbued with a rhetoric one has not always associated with its acknowledged charms. And Beethoven's E-flat Quartet, a work that can seem disjunct, took on a flow that had nothing to do with smoothing-out, and everything to do with inevitability.
The surprise, if there can be one at this level of quartet accomplishment, was in Schuller's contemplative and mysterious Quartet No. 1 (1957). Despite its quietude, this remains a taut and tense exercise in self-concealment, one that relaxes only a little by its meditative ending.
In a reading both stunning and engaging, the depth of its substance and the facets of its personality emerged clearly, reminding the listener again that Schuller's seriousness as a composer has sometimes been obscured by his versatility as a musician. More performances like this one ought to correct that condition.