Juilliard Quartet’s Perdurable Mann For All Seasons



Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music. First Run Features DVD. Total Time: 58:00.

MOZART: String Quartet in D, K. 499. BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 3. DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 11 in C, Op. 61. Juilliard String Quartet. Recorded live July 30, 1965, at the Salzburg Festival. Orfeo C 927 161B. Total Time: 77:01.

Josef Gingold Exclusive Interview: His Life, His Playing, His Teaching. Atlantic Crossing Records ACR0003. Total Time: 48:23.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – What does it take to be the leader of one of the world’s great string quartets for 51 years, playing 100-150 concerts a year for a total of up to 6,000 performances? It certainly takes endurance. Discipline? Absolutely. Good health? Unquestionably. And perhaps above all, love of music.

Robert Mann, at 96, can look back on a lifetime of doing what he most wanted to do, doing it at the highest possible level and for longer than anyone had thought possible. This new DVD, a tribute to Mann, produced and directed by Allan Miller, provides at least a glimpse into the life of this unique musician.

Mann, or Bobby as everyone called him, never wanted a career in music. As a boy, he tells us, his dream was to become a forest ranger. He loved the outdoors and never tired of hiking and climbing mountains. Later in life he still did those things. When he was young, practicing the violin was certainly not high on his list of fun things to do. It was only later that he realized he had a talent for the instrument and that making music could be something special.

Robert Mann formed the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946.
(First Run Features)

Mann was a student at Juilliard School of Music in 1946 when William Schuman, the school’s president, asked him to form a quartet. Three years later, on the release of its first recording for Columbia Records, the ensemble was immediately recognized for its precision and for its mastery of the most difficult repertoire. Representative recordings of milestone status included the complete Bartók quartets and premieres of numerous works by American composers, including Elliott Carter.

The Juilliard String Quartet was soon invited to appear in Europe, where it was received with great acclaim, making its debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1955 performing works by Schoenberg, Haydn, and Beethoven. It returned to Salzburg in 1960 and again in 1965. The recent release by Orfeo of a recording of the complete 1965 concert is a valuable documentation of the Juilliard String Quartet in its prime.

On the Speak the Music DVD, Mann is seen mentoring a young quartet, telling them: “You must have dramatic strength.” The Juilliard had dramatic strength in spades. Technically beyond reproach, the ensemble also played with an intensity few rivals could match. While the quartet’s studio recordings from the 1960s are superb, the live performances from the 1965 concert recorded by Orfeo have that extra degree of excitement and passion, especially in the white-hot performance of Bartók’s Third Quartet. The Salzburg Festival programming choices were also typical of the Juilliard. Mozart’s String Quartet K. 499 is unusually chromatic and forward-looking, and so too is Dvořák’s Op. 61. These are challenging works, and the Juilliard illuminates them with totally committed playing.

One of the most insightful segments of the DVD on Mann is his discussion of how he and his colleagues in the quartet worked together over the years. Mann admits that there were “fireworks” from time to time and that the animosity almost led to the dissolution of the group. For his part, he says he didn’t leave because “the music (was) too great to give it up.” He also says that the later years were especially difficult for him; by that time, he was 20 years older than the other members of the quartet – replacements for original members who had retired or moved on – and had vastly more experience. He admits that he was often impatient with them and reluctant to accept their ideas.

Leading a famous quartet for 51 years is an all-consuming occupation, one might think, but Mann somehow found the time to get married and raise a family. His son Nicholas followed in his footsteps and became a violinist and quartet player himself. Nicholas led the Mendelssohn Quartet for 31 years. Robert’s wife, the actress Lucy Rowan, often collaborated with her husband in works Robert had composed for narrator and small ensembles.

Robert Mann (left) in action with the Juilliard String Quartet
(First Run Features)

The DVD shows Mann in action with the Juilliard String Quartet and features excerpts from various performances over the years, including one in 1997 that must have been among his last appearances as first violinist. We also see him playing various works with his son and performing one of his own pieces with his wife. And from his “retirement” years, we see him hard at work mentoring young quartets with careful attention to detail and to phrasing, but above all with an infectious joy in bringing music to life.

A number of prominent musicians offer high praise of Mann’s musicianship on this DVD, among them Itzhak Perlman, Stephen Hough, Elliott Carter, and Seiji Ozawa. The great Japanese conductor founded the Ozawa International Academy in Switzerland, where Mann was a very active mentor of student ensembles well into his 90s.

Mann was born in Portland, Ore., and lived most of his life in New York. Josef Gingold, the subject of Josef Gingold Exclusive Interview: His Life, His Playing, His Teaching, was born (1909) in what is now Belarus, came to the United States when he was 11 years old, went back to Europe to study with Eugène Ysaÿe in Belgium and returned to the U.S. to make a career as a violinist. At the age of 27, Gingold joined the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and went on to become concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony and later the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, leaving that orchestra in 1960 to become a teacher at Indiana University.

Gingold had a great career as a violinist and teacher, and I was looking forward to learning more about this amazing man from this new CD released by Atlantic Crossing Records. Unfortunately, it consists entirely of an interview with Gingold recorded privately when the violinist was 80 years old and it is a great disappointment. The recording quality is so poor that one can hardly make out what Gingold is saying. It should never have been released. While Atlantic Crossing offers no apologies or warnings on the CD jacket about the wretched quality of the recording, it does at least steer the frustrated listener to a transcript of the interview on their website.

From the transcript we learn that Gingold greatly admired both Toscanini and Szell and that he was particularly impressed with Szell’s approach to Mozart. But most of the interview is devoted to Gingold’s career as a teacher, and it needs to be emphasized that he was one of the great ones. During his 30 years at Indiana University, he taught Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Leonidas Kavakos, Joseph Silverstein, and many other big-name violinists. Asked about his teaching method, Gingold said: “I don’t have a system. What I merely try to do is to see a very gifted person and what are his needs. I try to teach them that music is a religion. It is to me and always has been.”

A better source of information about Gingold is David Blum’s book Quintet, Five Journeys toward Musical Fulfillment (Cornell University Press, 1999). A Gingold discography is available here.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.