The Juilliard String Quartet came to the Library of Congress last night to honor the memory of Antonio Stradivari. They also brought honor and glory to themselves and to the music they played. Their guest was cellist Bonnie Hampton, who was exactly the right guest to have.
From the opening of the concert, a duet for two cellos by Boccherini, one knew that a major event was in store. It was a feast of baritone sound -- full, vigorous and alive. Hampton and the Juilliard cellist, Joel Krosnick, played together as if they had done it always, matching tone for tone, nuance for nuance.
The novelty of the concert was a seldom-heard quintet by the late 19th-century Russian composer Taneyev. It borrowed from Arensky (for grace), Borodin (for rhythm) and Tchaikovsky (for everything else). The emphasis in the first half of the piece was Borodin, with his Second Symphony and a lot of "Prince Igor." But the last half was purest Tchaikovsky, reminding one of the cello "Rococo Variations" and almost anything else of the master. It was good to hear, once anyway, and it is surely fun to play, but it is also a thick slab of heavy stuff with too much Russian dressing.
The glory was saved till last: The Schubert Quintet in C. Because it is so orchestral, it seems beyond the scope of chamber music; it is one of a kind, asking everything from its players and almost as much from listeners. But the effort and the attention are small investment for this mighty work. In 1828, Schubert's last year, he gave us his whole vision, affirming life and death at once: the achingly beautiful close of the Adagio, the dark shadows of the trio in a scherzo otherwise filled with light, the finale's reminder that life, on any terms, is sweet -- all of this is from some rarefied world, one called Schubert.
When the work finished, the quartet and Hampton sat for a moment, pulling themselves back to the Coolidge Auditorium. They had been on an extraordinary journey. We can only be grateful that they allowed us to come with them.