in: Reviews

December 6, 2011

Liquid Gold from Arneis

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The Arneis Quartet is doing everything right. They have performed in some prestigious concert halls, entered international competitions, had residencies at distinguished summer festivals, and are now undertaking a residency at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, where they presented an outstanding concert on Sunday, Dec. 3. They have technical proficiency in abundance, a well-balanced blend of voices, and spot-on intonation. More remarkable, as a relatively young quartet, they have already achieved something it often takes years to develop: a unique, collective sound which is as warm and full of sparkle as liquid gold.

The program was designed to showcase their range of expertise: Beethoven’s op. 18, no 5 in A Major, a bread-and-butter work of string quartet literature; Gyorgy Kurtag’s  Homage a Mihaly Andras: 12 Microludes for String Quartet, op. 13, a surprising delight of a piece by a living  composer; and the tragic masterpiece by Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, op. 110.

The Beethoven work owes much to W.A. Mozart. This particular quartet of the op. 18 works is truly an homage to the older master. Many of the themes are his, and Beethoven delights in expanding on and commenting on them with his own style and voice. This work gave ample opportunity for first violinist Heather Braun to show off her fabulous chops. There was scarcely a moment when the first violin part wasn’t working hard (though in Braun’s case, seemingly effortlessly) to show off the range of the instrument.

The Kurtag work, 12 short wisps of pieces, was a birthday present to a dear friend. A virtual catalog of 20th-century extended string techniques (“Bartok” snap pizzicatos, chattering col legno bowing, glissandi from the top to the bottom of the fingerboard, and so on), these pieces sometimes presented harsh dissonances reminiscent of Bulgarian women’s choir music, harmonically beautiful while jarring on the surface. The sounds would skitter across the stage with mouse-like fleetness, winking brightly like a firefly, or slipping down the throat like an oyster – gone before fully tasted, but leaving a fragrance, glow, or sense of movement that lingered. As violist Dan Dona put it “you can consider these pieces the lovechild of Webern and Bartok.” An astute comparison of a fascinating piece.

The final piece on the program is one of the 20th century’s great chamber works, Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 8.   The piece illustrates, as many of his works do, the oppression under which Shostakovich struggled for much of his life as a Soviet composer.  Indeed, this work is dedicated “to the victims of Fascism and war,” and, using German musical notation, the opening theme of the work is D-S (Eb)-C-H (B natural), or D. Sch(ostakovich), firmly, if privately, putting the composer chief among those victims. The piece opens with dark solemnity, building in tension until it breaks out in a terrifying , raucous dance, devolves into a sickly waltz, eerily portrays the tension of waiting for the midnight knocks on the door to drag one off to the gulag, until at last resolving into an exhausted peace. Each member of the quartet got their moment to shine, particularly cellist Agnes Kim’s extended and soaring solo. It was a hair-raising performance.

The quartet is named after the Arneis grape, a varietal that is difficult to grow, but which yields an exquisite white wine. Certainly growing a successful string quartet is no easier, but the music this group is yielding is among the best.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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