Yesterday afternoon's one-hour recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, featured works by Béla Bartók and Antonin Dvořák.
The first work was Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Sz. 40, Op. 7 (1909). This was a fairly youthful work inspired by the composer's unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer. It contains similarities to the Violin Concerto No. 1, which he wrote for the same woman and then long suppressed, and begins with a slow mournful movement Bartók described to his beloved as a "funeral dirge." The later movements are more lively and were characterized by Zoltán Kodály as Bartók's "return to life" as he recovered from his heartbreak. The quartet is also notable for the contrapuntal writing and for the references to Hungarian folk music in the final movement.
What struck me most about this performance, which had been coached by Sylvia Rosenberg, was the restraint which the students displayed through almost the entire length of the work, almost as though it were a refined drawing room piece. It was only in the final movement that there was some attempt at animation as the musician's encountered the folk elements contained within it. This careful approach was very much in contrast with other renditions I have heard, most recently a live broadcast from Carnegie Hall by the Takács Quartet, that showed a great deal more vigor and liveliness in keeping with the spirit of Bartók's music.
The second piece was Dvořák's Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (1891), nicknamed the Dumky. This was the second time I attended a performance of this work recently, and again there was evident a strong difference in approach. The first occasion on which I heard the piece was at Juilliard's Chamberfest last month. That performance featured three pre-college musicians, most notable of whom was pianist Adria Ye, and had been coached by Adria's teacher, Yoheved Kaplinsky, Juilliard's Piano Chair. There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of emphasis placed on the piano part. In contrast, yesterday's performance was coached by two renowned string players, cellist David Finckel and violinist Ida Kavafian. Accordingly, there was a very noticeable shift in the configuration and the emphasis placed on the various parts. At times, the piano (Alan Woo) seemed to be used primarily as accompaniment to the violin (Fabiola Kim) and cello (Jeonghyoun Lee). In fact, the piano was physically placed directly behind the strings so that no eye contact was possible among the musicians. I found it fascinating to compare the two interpretations.