On Sunday afternoon, a goodly crowd gathered at Barrister Winery to hear the Ariel Quartet play a program of music by Beethoven and Shostakovich. Had that same audience been able to travel anywhere else in the world, they would not have heard better quartet playing than was offered on that day by the Ariel Quartet in its last of four concerts in the winter season of the 2019 Northwest BachFest.
To encounter quartet playing of this level is more remarkable than you might think, because there is no aspect of classical music where the standards are as high as they are in the performance of string quartets. Cults have formed whose members focus with a jeweler’s eye on the smallest details of execution and interpretation, scrutinizing accuracy of intonation, precision of ensemble and technical finish, and always comparing each new performance with recordings of the same work by other quartets who have already attained cult status. Even when subjected to this sort of scrutiny, the Ariel Quartet, comprised of Gershon Gerchikov and Alexandra Kazovsky (violins), Jan Grüning (viola) and Amit Even-Tov (cello), emerged as a treasurable source of new pleasures and new insights into the string quartet literature, from which three great works were chosen for Sunday’s program: Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6; his Quartet in F major, Op. 135; and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110.
The sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that, in listing the members of the Ariel Quartet, I made no mention of “first violin” or “second violin.” This is a result of the group’s policy to depart from the traditional notion of the dominant first violinist, whose musical personality defines that of the quartet itself.
Just mention to string quartet cultists the names Joseph Roisman, Robert Mann and Norbert Brainin, and they will fire back the names of the quartets they led: Budapest, Juilliard and Amadeus String Quartets, while the names of remaining three players in each group may prove more difficult to recall. The two violinists of the Ariel Quartet exchange chairs according to the players’ wishes and the opinions of the other players as to who might be more suitable to the work at hand. This frees every player to speak in his or her own voice, which is reflected in the startling transparency and clarity of their playing. An audience member, himself a violinist, was heard to remark that he heard 50% more music in the performance of the Beethoven Quartet No. 6 than he knew it contained, even after having studied and performed it himself.
From the first measures of the Beethoven Quartet No. 6, the Ariel Quartet conveyed a marvelous quality of openness and airiness by carefully moderating bow pressure and vibrato, allowing us to hear all the colors acquired by their splendid instruments over the last three centuries. They also achieve a remarkable flexibility of tempo while maintaining utterly perfect ensemble. They seemed always to own the beat, rather than being regulated by it. Even at very quick tempi, there was always time to give a witty inflection to a phrase, or impart a touching bit of color.
As illuminating as these qualities were in performing the Beethoven quartets, they were perhaps even more so in Shostakovich’s great C minor quartet, which Spokane audiences last had a chance to hear in an arrangement for string orchestra, performed beautifully by the Spokane Symphony last year under guest conductor Daniel Hege. Though it might seem counterintuitive, the piece was even more intense and affecting when played by four players than by 40. The quartet mixes deep sorrow with bitter sarcasm in a way that seemed unique to Shostakovich, until, that is, we encountered it again in Ariel’s deeply affecting performance of Beethoven’s last string quartet, and final completed masterpiece. To move in the space of one minute from the fragile lyricism of the third movement to the screaming dissonances of the fourth was to be led in a moment from one extreme of the human soul to the other.
Any summary of the highpoints of Sunday’s concert must include mention of a soloist who appeared before the quartet walked onstage. In keeping with the practice of introducing its audiences to outstanding local talent, BachFest presented 10-year-old Jessie Morozov, who performed Charles Auguste de Bério’s “Scene de Ballet,” a violin work of blistering difficulty, with a degree of technical mastery, poise and musicality that many professionals may only dream of. Before a phenomenon like Jessie, criticism must fall silent.
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