Mozart: The "Haydn" Quartets
The Juilliard String Quartet:
Robert Mann, violin
Isidore Cohen, violin
Raphael Hillyer, viola
Claus Adams, cello
Price range: $53-510, mean $285 on popsike
Comments: I believe that the Juilliard String Quartet recorded Mozart's six "Haydn" Quartets at least twice, once in the early 1960s for Epic and then again with a different musician lineup for CBS in the mid 1970s. Robert Mann (violin) and Raphael Hillyer (viola) played in both sets; Isidore Cohen (violin) and Claus Adam (cello) were replaced by Earl Carlyss (violin) and Joel Krosnick (cello) in the 1970s set [actually, Claus Adams is listed as the cellist for Quartets #18 and 19 of the second set]. This 3 LP Columbia SAX set consisted of the UK pressings of the Epic recordings issued by EMI/Columbia. It is both relatively rare and quite expensive, as you can see from the popsike listing. If you're yearning for a copy, Classical Vinyl in the UK has it on sale now for 320 GBP.
I have listened to both sets from the Juilliard, and in all honesty, it's hard for me to pick a clear winner. Both are excellent, in my opinion. The Epic set opens with the cheerful Quartet #14 in G major. One of my first impressions was how tight the ensemble was; the quartet truly plays as a single organic entity. Intonation is predominantly spot on. Perhaps these observations come as no surprise, since these recordings were made following a series of international tours in Europe and Asia that the Juilliard Quartet made as "cultural ambassadors", so I think they had a lot of opportunities to find their groove. The Adagio opening to Quartet #19 "Dissonant" is played with such beauty; I love the way the Juilliard has such control of their dynamics as they play those rising crescendos. This very solemn but dramatic introduction paves the way for the Allegro which the Juilliard conveys with such joy and energy. "The Hunt" is also given an excellent performance, and I especially enjoyed listening to the final movement in which the Juilliard Quartet turns up the heat.
The sound quality here is very good with a nice analog warmth and clarity to it. Sitting in the sweet spot between my speakers, I was able to appreciate the spatial separation of instruments.
Notice that all the matrix numbers are the same ones used for U.S. Epic stampers (at least for the first pressing of the Epic equivalent). This leads me to believe that these were not remastered by Columbia and were rather just pressed in the U.K. I have done an A/B testing of the Columbia vs the Epic pressing of the same album (the photos of this album are shown below) and have to say that I do not hear any significant sonic difference. Keep in mind, this is with a late, blue label Epic pressing. Look at the price differential. These Epic records can be had for a few dollars a pop. Each of the Columbia issues sell for $100 or more. This might be a prime example of how rarity trumps sound quality. If you're going for this as a hard-core collector, that's one thing. If you're going for the music, I think you'll be more than satisfied to get the US Epic releases. While the later CBS set is available in digital as a budget boxed set from Sony, I have yet to see the entire Epic set released on CD.
I've included scanned images of the booklet that is included in the boxed set for your reading pleasure.