On Saturday evening at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, the Ariel String Quartet, augmented by cellist Alisa Weilerstein, dazzled a sold-out audience with three works from the classical chamber ensemble corpus. These young musicians gave fresh, informed appraisals of traditional works, leaving no doubt about their musical command and virtuosity. The Ariel Quartet is perhaps representative of the modern state of classical music: four very young musicians from three different nations (Israel, Russia, and Germany) in residence at an American conservatory performing the classic works of European chamber music. Even their slightly informal appearance (wearing tuxedos without ties) belies a certain casual relationship with their music, a relationship that benefits from their youth and vibrancy.

To perform a Beethoven quartet has become de rigueur at the Duke Performances chamber music concerts; this is the third string quartet this season, and also the third to perform Beethoven. Nevertheless, their choice, Beethoven’s Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No.2, was a delightful presentation of early Beethoven. The Ariel Quartet breathes together, almost as if they are preparing to sing instead of bow; their supple grace notes infected the music with a bright quality. Early Beethoven presents a difficult problem in negotiating the relationship of space and subtlety, which the Ariel Quartet handled with grace and care, yet not without force. Beethoven’s developments inhere a sense of adventure, illusion, and surprise, which was heard in fresh ways with their reading. At the recapitulation of the first movement, the grip of the rosin on the strings of their instruments was tangible, communicating a corporeal existence for this centuries-old music. The Ariel Quartet’s Beethoven was at times lyrical, especially in the second movement, which sounded like a bel canto aria (for a more tangible example of which, from Fidelio, click here); and at other times humorous, like in the trio of the third movement, juxtaposing musical styles not at peace with themselves. The fourth movement displayed the musicans’ versatile dynamic range, and the ending was perfectly and surprisingly abrupt. Violinist Alexandra Kazovsky, who played first violin in the Beethoven and Boccherini, stole the show with her elegant, engaged playing.

The choice of Boccherini’s Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5, seemed functional; Boccherini, a cellist, wrote many of his quintets (he composed over one hundred!) in order to incorporate himself into the resident string quartet of his patron. Today, however, the odder musical combinations often come with risks. A quintet is inevitably a string quartet plus a guest member. Throwing a fifth member into a quartet like Ariel, which has played together for ten years, is analogous to trading LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers: although all the players are fantastic, and they undoubtedly will make some ESPN highlight reels, it would take years to develop internal team chemistry. The same goes for works outside the traditional arrangements of professional quartets and trios. Unfortunately, it is necessary, because a resident string quintet or piano quartet is not economically viable.

Regardless, Alisa Weilerstein, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, fit with the Ariel String Quartet like a key in a lock. Hearing Weilerstein perform next to the quartet’s cellist, Amit Even-Tov, highlighted their different playing styles. Weilerstein, who played first cello (Boccherini’s part) in the Boccherini quintet, sounded confident and completely at home in her tone; Even-Tov was more demure in her role, evincing a hollower sound. Their reading of the quintet’s famous minuetto taught us how to listen to a hackneyed piece with new ears. At their quietest moments, their bows seemed barely to be touching the string, demanding complete focus from the audience. The Boccherini quintet is chamber music in the true, traditional sense: music for a room, replete with various pairings and dynamics. The musicians on stage were enjoying this opportunity to simply make music.

The program’s highlight was Schubert’s C Major Quintet, D. 956; Schubert completed the piece only months before he died, and though it was not performed until decades after his death, it has become a “desert-island piece” for many classical music lovers. While the musicians’ performance was passionate and emotional, it was equally learned and informed. Schubert’s compositional technique highlights two semitones (A-flat to G, and D-flat to C), and this performance of the Quintet brought out the relationships in ways often overlooked. The musicians again reconfigured for the Schubert, with Gershon Gerchikov taking the first violin and Amit Even-Tov playing first cello. The second and third movements, nearly musical opposites, were outstanding; Weilerstein’s pizzicato drove the opening of the second movement, a lament which always seems to be searching for a melody. Gerchikov’s rustically refined playing led the third, which presented several melodies almost in response to the preceding movement’s non-melody. The background figurations – horn calls, syncopations, and chorale-type chords – were spot-on, showing the depth of their musical coordination. The third movement’s ending evoked audible gasps from the thrilled audience who was marveling at the depth of musical emotion in that movement. The music travels between pathos and ferocity, and the musicians handled this depth perfectly.

The only regret from the performance was the lack of an encore; but with the cello quintet repertoire as small as it is, it would be difficult to find an appropriate piece. The Ariel String Quartet, along with Alisa Weilerstein, gave a perfect night of music, and we can look forward to many collaborations these fine artists will have in the future.

Note: For a recent Wall Street Journal article about Weilerstein by Barbara Jepson, click here. And for a review of the quartet’s November concert at Davidson, click here.