Prior to the start of Sunday’s ISG concert, Sarah Whitling announced that the Borromeo would not be able to perform as scheduled and that we would be hearing instead the Ariel String Quartet, graduates of NEC and currently Quartet-in-Residence at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. With the Borromeo’s genial first Nick Kitchen present in the audience, we quickly exchanged disappointment for expectation. Ariel is an ensemble worth watching, as they bring unique perspectives to their performances, thoughtfully giving familiar works a new cast. They bring to the music starkly individual tone colors, terrific unisons all the more striking because of their individuality of voices, an original approach to tempi, a strategic use of silences and skillfully elaborated cadences
Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 2 string quartet, probably the third in order of composition, is the shortest of the six Op. 18 works; the influence of Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets is clearly in evidence, the work being filled with Haydnesque humor and incongruities that Beethoven made his own. Ariel took the opening allegro at a moderate tempo, with careful coordination and tight control. Complex textures soon emerged, conveying a sort of suppressed sadness under the light-hearted surface. Sharp accents in the development gave it a threatening, mysterious feel. Alexandra Kazovsky’s first violin infused the recapitulation with jovial wit. The leisurely adagio cantabile felt elegiac, the individual voices of the ensemble singing together as a single enhanced voice. The contrasting brisk and scurrying trio section evoked rustic peasant squabbling, at the antipodes of elegy, so that the adagio as a whole ranged from eternity to the here and now and back to eternity. In the scherzo, as throughout the entire piece, Amit Even-Tov’s cello provided unobtrusive but firm grounding as we were led on a romp through a dazzling soundscape. The “unbuttoned” finale came as a kaleidoscope of shifting moods, from boisterous to reflective, from jocose to angry, from earthy to wistful. The development brought Jan Grüning’s furious sandpapery viola sound to the fore, somehow enhancing the tone colors of the other three voices.
Schumann composed his three Op. 41 string quartets in a manic burst of activity in June and July of 1842, dedicating the set to Mendelssohn. The first half of the year had seen unusual marital strife, the apparent cause being Clara’s successes on a concert tour, overshadowing the composer’s career. Unable to handle the role of second fiddle, he returned to Leipzig while she continued on to Copenhagen. Back home, he fell into a long depression, unable to work during her absence and only slowly returning to composition after her return, producing the trio of string quartets, Op. 41, followed by the piano quintet, Op. 44.
Taking over as first violin in the Op. 41, No. 3, Gershon Gerchikov led the andante espressivo first movement with a sweet and tender exposition, the whole effectively sung as if an aria, tempered by manliness in Even-Tov’s firm cello voice. The movement overflowed with Romanticism, pulsing and throbbing background, cantabile foreground. The recapitulation was marked by pleading. In the second movement Assai Agitato,. Ariel conveyed how a deeply dejected soul struggles with phases and stages of abandonment, in turn rebelling, then attempting to brace itself against attacks of loneliness, then sinking into sorrow with a pierced heart before becoming completely unraveled. At this stage of fragmentation, the ensemble achieved marvelously modern dissonances. Only at the very end did hope and calm return, as a light at the end of a frightening tunnel.
Ariel gave the ensuing adagio molto movement the character of a hymn of supplication, achieved by having the viola take a dominant role, with its tone color evoking a narrowly escaped tragedy. Inner turmoil and fragmentation lurked again, full of magnificent dissonance. Implicitly reminding us that the state of separation and anguish for Schumann, thrown back on his own resources, the movement also found a place of emotional outpouring. The beating heart motif pulsating in Even-Tov’s cello provided the key to Ariel’s interpretation.
Rather than delivering the finale as sprightly and upbeat, Ariel found extraordinary complexity and darkness. They took the rondo theme at a rapid, unmelodious tempo, in abrasive defiance. In the episodes, strong dynamic shifts emphasized manic, carnavalesque and even grotesque features, tinged with terror. At the end, even the rondo theme was overwrought with anxiety, nearly atonal. Finally, the driving coda was filled with an almost Stravinsky-like rhythmic dissonance.
The audience responded positively to an original, thrilling, and really quite persuasive reading.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.