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Crisp Yet Full-bodied Blend from Arneis


Areneis Quartet (file photo)
Areneis Quartet (file photo)

The Arneis String Quartet seems to have chosen its name well. The Arneis grape has traditionally been used to blend with harsher wines to soften them, but on its own, the wine it produces is a crisp, full-bodied white, with floral and fruit notes, according to aficionados.

So it is with the sound this quartet produces. No single member stands out; each rather brings his own voice to the whole, and the blend is singularly beautiful: sweet but with the sweetness of clear water— not at all cloying.

With the addition of guest violist Michelle LaCourse, the quartet presented a nicely balanced program at the Korean Church in Brookline last night, consisting of Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 76 No. 5, Andrew List’s String Quartet No. 4 and Beethoven’s String Quintet in C major, Op. 29.

The Haydn Quartet is in four movements, Allegretto, Largo Cantabile e mesto, Menuetto Allegro, and Finale Presto. In lesser hands Haydn’s first violin parts can sometimes sound shrill and scratchy, but Heather Braun has a sure, clear tone, presents a strong sense of leadership and personality necessary in the first violin part, but never sounds anything but beautiful. The first movement’s theme was sweetly played, cradled in the musical filigree of the other instruments. Just lovely. The second movement, Largo, from which the quartet derives its nickname, pushed more towards an andante tempo, but this created a sense of reverie instead of lullaby. Equally valid, and very cantabile.

Andrew List’s String Quartet No. 4 deserves a place in the repertoire of any quartet playing living composers. His music is atmospheric, and gives a misty sense of a broad horizon (not unlike one of his major influences, Bernard Rands), conveying melodic influences of Bartok and the dying dinosaur bits of the Rite of Spring. He also incorporates jazzy inflections, both rhythmically and harmonically, and a fair bit of sul ponticello playing (on the bridge, for a glassy, otherworldly sound). The Scherzo second movement is a moto perpetuo dynamo which slams into an abrupt stop. The third movement gives each player a moment to shine then blend. It has fugal passages, and ultimately a poignant language reminiscent of Barber, slowly dying away into a silvery trill. It also has the gift of not being overwhelmingly long. List seems to have a clearer handle on form than many of his contemporaries.

The final piece on the program, Beethoven’s Quintet in C, had all the robustness and drama one can expect from Beethoven. From many exciting moments, the mouse-like scurries of the first violin over the shimmering tremolos in the rest of the ensemble in the Presto fourth movement
stood out for playful phrasing, humor, and tasteful musicianship. LaCourse’s viola blended smoothly into the ensemble, adding warmth and color in the middle register.

Overall, an extremely satisfying evening of a variety of music well and thoughtfully executed.

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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