The Juilliard Quartet is not given to issuing manifestos, but its latest recording amounts to a moderately radical statement on the music of Arnold Schoenberg. The Juilliard's message, in effect, is that we should modify the image of Schoenberg as the bombtosser who destroyed tonality - that his art communicates more effectively if we approach him as one of the last Romantics. This statement is contained implicitly in the brilliant new performance of Schoenberg's Five Quartets on Columbia M3 34581 (three records), and more clearly in the interesting booklet that accompanies the records.
This quartet's opinions on Schoenberg are of more than passing interest. From its earliest days as a performing group, the Juilliard has been identified with the father of atonalism; it complete recording of his quartets a quarter of a century ago played a significant role in establishing an audience and a reputation for the composer and the performers. Since then, Schoenberg has remained a staple in their repertoire, and like all the music they play repeatedly, his quartets have changed subtly, gradually revealing new depths and wider expressive possibilities.
Toward the end of Schoenberg's life, the Juilliard Quartet (a group 75 per cent different in personnel from the present quartet) visited Schoenberg and played his First Quartet for him. Robert Mann, the only remaining member of that foursome, recalls the event in the booklet:
"He said: 'You know, you know, you played it in a way that I'd never conceived it.' Those were his exact words, and we were horrified. But he smiled and continued, saying, 'You play it so wonderfully this way - and I like it - I want you to continue playing it this way!" Later, they got further instructions from a disciple of Schoenberg, who suggested that the Master "might prefer it if you wouldn't play quite so intensely . . . " - a delicate suggestion, perhaps, that they should reflect more deeply on the stylistic differences between Schoenberg and Bartok.
If you compare the new performance to the one recorded a quarter-century ago, it becomes clear that the Juilliard has devoted much of its energy in these years (consciously and subconsciously) to reconciling the apparently contradictory instructions given on that occasion. The tension is still there (music without tension is Muzak: Schoenberg without tension is unimaginable), but it is part of a large and subtler experience. The overall impression is one of variety - each of the quartets has its own distinct personality.
But there is also a greater sense of continuity. We hear the composer beginning in the world of Wagner and Brahms, in fact, the unnumbered Quartet in D that he composed in 1897 is so tuneful that we might mistake parts of it for Dvorak, except that it is so tightly constructed. From there, we progress through the tonal (though tonally ambiguous) world best known from "Transfigured Night" and finally, in the last two quartets, into the full 12-tone system. Enough stylistic variety for any artist's lifetime, and yet there is a sense of logical progression, of continuous growth, thoughtout the sequence: the changes in style are continuously consistent with a set of underlying ideals that remained remarkably constant through 39 years. And prominent among these ideals, prominently displayed in the performance, are a dedication to emotive expressiveness and to melody (yes, melody - listen to it) that stamp the composer as a true son of Vienna, a true preserver of the Romantic tradition.
Playing these works chronologically, particularly if you think about what happened to the world between 1897 and 1936, is a unique experience - thought-provoking and musically very satisfying. Those who have followed the Juilliard's live performances through the years will not find it a total surprise, but the opportunity to put it all together, to see it all in perspective, makes this release a very special musical event.