The concert by the Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress last night presented the first performance of the 1983 Quartet by Donald Martino. Its companion pieces were the G minor Quartet by the 18-year-old Schubert and the final quartet of Beethoven, Opus 135. This makes fast company for a new piece.
The Martino quartet is 12-tone oriented, and one suspects it uses the B-A-C-H motive with its numerical equivalents. Martino is a dedicated, creative composer who well deserves his solid reputation, but he opens this piece by slamming a door in the face of the listener. In a bit, a line appears at which the listener can pick up a bit of courage, but the road is not easy. For the first half of the quartet, every step at listening is challenged, daring the listener to continue. If a composer wants his music to be heard, he must indicate some welcome. It is all right to begin with a blow to get the attention, but one should plan to keep that attention once it is given. The listener is, after all, one-third of musical performance. That is worth some creative consideration.
Throughout the four movements, played without pause, the performers are kept fiercely busy, further daunting the attempt at serious listening. In the second half, at a welcome moment of repose, one could determine the shape of the line and the design of the material. There was both beauty and feeling, and, blessedly, the frenzy subsided. The relief was temporary. The quartet enters a protracted and, one is sure, organized tempest which wanted to end the torment before the actual last note.
The answer to the partnership between composer and audience was in the Beethoven quartet. Probably this quartet was damned in its day for being difficult, and it still asks much of performer and listener. But it reaches out, wanting to share its glories, and it succeeds brilliantly.
The Beethoven received a sumptuous and subtle performance by the Juilliard. They were not so masterful with the Schubert. Robert Mann, first violin, seemed to have problems of several kinds, and he was almost detached from his three colleagues. Happily, in the last movement of the Schubert things were set to rights. Martino should have been pleased with his performance. Beethoven clearly would have approved.