in: Reviews

March 27, 2011

Æolus String Quartet’s Balanced Program

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On March 25, the Chamber Music Foundation of New England presented  a concert of Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. Formed in 2006 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Æolus String Quartet, currently the Graduate Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Texas at Austin, radiates a youthful exuberance. The players immediately took control of the intimate stage, and each work received a short introduction. The most consistent performer of the evening was violist Gregory Luce: his crisp runs in the Beethoven and overall warmth of sound cemented the quartet; although the cellist, Alan Richardson, struggled at times to find the center of the pitch, he provided a necessary depth to the quartet’s sound.  The two violinists, Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, were well matched and consistently good throughout the evening.  The quartet’s wide range of technical ability, musicality, and an obvious enjoyment of their work were fully displayed in this program.

The first work on the program, Beethoven’s Op. 18, no. 1, is an early quartet rooted in the Classical tradition. Although this work is a staple of the repertory, it was given a careful and delicate performance. Clearly, the Æolus String Quartet has dealt with this work on a minute level: in the exposition, the opening unison motive began with a delicate up-bow; in the recapitulation, the same motive began on a more forceful down-bow. In addition, the quartet employed a sensitive approach to phrasing, subtly articulating the many subsections of the first movement.  When writing the second movement, Beethoven alluded in a letter to the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a dramatic climax beautifully handled by the quartet. The final movement highlighted the technical abilities of the various performers: the two violins were especially impressive in their shared octave runs that unspooled like a ball of yarn.

Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, written over a hundred years after the Beethoven, provided a dramatic counterpoint to the first half of the program. Bartók’s five-movement work comprises a palindrome: the outer movements are connected through a shared melody, and the second and fourth movements feature unique alterations to the quartet’s typical sound.

It is an excellent example of how he expanded the timbre of the genre. The second movement is scored con sordino, which directs the players to mute their instruments. Often this results in a delicate sound, yet the Æolus Quartet was able to coax fervent buzzing and distant rumblings. The fourth movement is scored entirely pizzicato. In this movement, each note was plucked, strummed, or scraped to recreate the unique, bowless sounds required by this Czech composer. The third movement, which sits isolated in the middle, began with layers of simply held notes accompanying the plaintive solo cello performed Alan Richardson. By the end of the first half, the Æolus Quartet had successively charted the evolution of the string quartet from in the hundred years from Beethoven to Bartók.

The final work on the program, Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1862), occupies a point about halfway in between the earlier two quartets. Harmonically, the Brahms’ rich harmonic language is more Romantic than Beethoven, yet fuller than the severe harmonies found in the Bartók.  The addition of pianist Victor Rosenbaum brought to the program a new texture, which complemented certain elements of Brahms’s compositional style; the warm colors and rich blend of melodies were enhanced by the combination of piano and string quartet. In some passages, the composer failed to integrate properly the strings with the piano; however, he solved this problem in the martial flavor of the third movement as well as the impassioned octave leaps in the second movement. The Romantic nature of this work fulfilled a gap in the historical overview of the program. Slotted in between the late Classical Beethoven and Modern Bartók, Brahms’s piano quintet was a perfect conclusion to the evening.

Alexander R. Ludwig teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and currently serves as the Secretary of the Haydn Society of North America.

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