ONE OF the vestiges of civilization in this city is the residency of the Juilliard String Quartet at the Library of Congress. Those four players stand for intelligence, passion and style to an extent that very few performing arts groups can communicate.
Tonight at 10 the Juilliard will have its hour on television, playing at the level that has made it sui generis among American chamber music ensembles. The program will be on Channel 26 and simulcast on WETA-FM.
What has separated the Juilliard most from its peers is its intensity, and its sensitivity to the dramatic implications of a piece. The occasional rough spots in execution and abrasive moments in phrasing have normally been excusable in direct proportion to the magnitude of a piece of music.
But in tonight's television concert, just about everything goes right.
The passionate sweep in the Schubert Quartettsatz is breathtaking. This odd work -- odd in the sense of not fitting stereotypes -- presages the Mahler scherzos. It is the kind of music that seems possessed. A straightforward melody starts to declare itself and, before you know it, rhythmic and harmonic will-o'-the-wisps have taken it by seizure. It is like the "Unfinished" Symphony; it comes on so strong that additional movements would risk sounding like afterthoughts.
First violinist Robert Mann shows his usual capacity for setting the intensity along with the pace -- with meticulous avoidance of the scrappiness that sometimes dogs his work.
The Haydn "Lark" Quartet that follows hews the elusive line between audacity and elegance that is at the root of Haydn's most remarkable work. Rhythmic shifts are utterly assured, and harmonic pointings -- there are some pretty bold ones -- hit strongly.
The final work, Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco's Guitar Quartet, has finesse and elan.
Closeups are more meaningful with a quartet than with an orchestra. We come to enjoy watching the wizened Mann, business-like second violinist Earl Carlyss, avuncular violist Samuel Rhodes and passionate cellist Joel Krosnick. A fine show.