The Juilliard String Quartet can plausibly be called the most important American quartet in history. Unavoidably for a group of its tenure — it was founded in 1946 — it has seen numerous personnel changes, especially over the last few years: Joseph Lin became first violinist in 2011, Roger Tapping, formerly of the Takacs Quartet, its violist in 2012. Cellist Joel Krosnick, in his 41st year with the quartet, is now the chief link to its storied past. (Second violinist Ronald Copes joined in 1997.)
Its Celebrity Series concert, the first local appearance in this configuration, offered a chance to ponder how much the current iteration relates to earlier ones — many layers and siftings from the past are still audible. Take Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, which occupied the second half of the Jordan Hall program. Saturday's performance accorded with classic Juilliard style: tough, clear-eyed, unsentimental. The quartet played with driving momentum and a disinclination to linger over particular moments. The sound was lean and wiry; in place of sonic niceties were sharp rhythms and ensemble transparency. There were a few unsettled moments early on; the finale was especially commanding.
Championing the Second Viennese School is another crucial part of the Juilliard legacy, and as good as the Schubert was, the performances of Webern and Berg in the first half were sensational. I have never heard Webern's Five Movements (Op. 5) sound so complete — structurally, emotionally, musically. The Juilliard adroitly captured the bits of Viennese nostalgia hiding in Webern's epigrammatic phrases, and virtually every moment — the slashing energy of the third movement, the desolation of the fourth — was charged with electricity.
Next to the Webern, Berg's String Quartet (Op. 3) had a Brahmsian warmth and richness, and the distance between it and the Schubert seemed much less than the 85 or so years that separate them. The performance united X-ray clarity among the parts, technical precision, and sheer passion, an amalgam it is hard to imagine being bettered. And while the focus should always be on the entire ensemble, Lin's playing was amazing for its fluidity and control.
The audience response was tremendous, and that was particularly heartening for the Berg, given that work's customary absence from concert stages. As an encore the quartet played the slow movement of Haydn's String Quartet in G (Op. 33, No. 5).
Some groups seem to wrestle with their past and legacy; the Juilliard seems completely revitalized. After 68 years, it may be just hitting its stride.