Newport Classical’s Friday night presentation of the Aizuri Quartet opened with two announcements, one marking the release of its newest album Earthdrawn Skies, the other a tearful farewell tribute to cellist Karen Ouzounian who would be making this her final performance with the quartet. Appropriately for the occasion, the concert began with with Ouzounian’s arrangement for string quartet of Clara Wieck Schumann’s Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen (“I stood darkly dreaming”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine gave to her husband Robert on their first Christmas; it eventually became part of Sechs Lieder Op. 13. It reflects the sadness of the poet, who while imagining a picture of his beloved coming to life, laments her loss.
The remainder of the evening departed somewhat from the group’s innovative propensity to pair newly created works with masterpieces. Instead they marked the cellist’s departure with three quartets they most love, beginning with Bartók’s monumental String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91. This staple of the repertoire has undergone a plethora of analyses from all manner of theoretical and compositional perspectives, but Aizuris’ sheer joy of playing it brought it to life in a way that showed Bartók’s love of counterpoint, his creative and overflowing sense of playful variations of an idea, and the idyllic countryside with its folk flavorings of the songs and dances that characterize the life celebrations of his native rural upbringings.
Bartók uses quite a large palette of sounds and effects in his score, including in addition to the usual loud and soft dynamics such effects as alternating vibrato and non-vibrato, slides, harmonics and playing sul ponticello (“near the bridge” – an effect designed to create more of the harmonics nasal sound), pizzicato (plucked strings) – including an entire movement of just pizzicato, containing a second more robust pluck that produces a snapping or slapping sound as the string rebounds off the finger board. Amidst all the colorings, and sometimes despite them, the group always brought out the musical motifs simply and with great clarity, and most especially the playful counterpoint that often ensued among them, this often alternating with breathtaking passages of mind-blowing rapidity and technical virtuosity, always executed with precision and flair. The folk-elements danced and pulsated as they surged forward, yet a sense of balance, order and expression purveyed the whole.
The centerpiece comes during the middle movement in what the performers thought of as ‘night music’ as they explained its place in the overall arch-structure of the work. I must confess here, having taught this work to many a graduate seminar, that I rather view that structure as inverted into the shape of a giant winged creature in flight, with its brilliant outer movements soaring like wings against a grounded body emerging as in a dawn, or perhaps from a cocoon or some primal creation event. The static foundation of a chordal cluster creates a mist of sound out of which arises a plaintive melody from the cello, soon to become a duet with the violin and its reminiscence of a bird. The entire movement evoked “the dawn of creation” effects that center Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony, and perhaps the “Garden of Love’s Sleep” that is central to Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie.
Another Schumann arrived after intermission – this time it was Robert’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 41, written around the same time as Clara’s opener. An underappreciated masterwork, this quartet shares much in common with the previous one by Bartók. Tonally they could not be more far apart, nor can one compare the mature Bartók with the youthful Schumann. Yet Aizruris’ joyful take brought out similarities in the playful interplay of contrapuntal motifs, sweeping scales of lightness and virtuosity, the galloping rhythms of a hunt (second movement Scherzo) or the rustic elements of a village dance, complete with a bagpipe-like drone in the finale, alternating with slower themes of intense beauty and depth. Some small connections of thematic unity among several movements here and there also materialized, and a theme perhaps in homage to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Adagio, which appears in Schumann’s Adagio movement, is completed and extended in his Finale.
Haydn quartets usually open a string quartet concert, but this one closed the show with a masterful and exquisite take on Op. 76, No. 4 in B-flat Major, “Sunrise.” Aizuri’s essay explained: “Our quartet loves the idea of pairing Bartók with Haydn, as both composers revolutionized the string quartet and have inspired us to approach both older and newer music with fresh eyes and ears.” Aizuri’s simple and proven formula again worked its magic: thematic and contrapuntal motives delivered with simply and poignant clarity, technical passages executed with flawless precision and bravura, folk elements danced with eloquence and grace.
The Breakers Mansion’s opulent and elegant ballroom and its resplendent acoustics was enveloped in the mist and fog of a warm summer’s night, Newport Classical patrons witnessed the end of an 11-year collaboration of the Aizuri Quartet with its cellist, offering a finale both joyful and tearful, and filled with, to quote again from the ensemble, “the brilliance and optimism of a new day.”
Tickets are available for many of the remaining concerts of Newport Classical Summer Music Festival.