The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival has presented an eclectic variety of exceptional chamber music for its 34th season, and Sunday, July 19 was no exception. The Ariel String Quartet – originally based out of Israel and now a chamber group in residence at the Cincinnati Conservatory – made its debut at the festival this past week, culminating in an exhilarating concert on Sunday night.

Upon initially gracing the stage, the quartet was clad in monochromatic attire of subdued black. However, the ensemble demonstrated an intensity and passion in their playing which belied their otherwise reserved appearance. This was immediately apparent from the captivating opening notes of their first selection, the Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) by Haydn. The first movement, a whirlwind of contrasting affects, tempi and tonalities, afforded the quartet the opportunity to display their intensity. Violinist Gershon Gerchikov and cellist Amit Even-Tov especially shone in this movement; the latter performer’s dark tones provided a growling intensity in the more frenetic sections of the movement. Each member of the ensemble displayed serious soloist capabilities within the first few minutes of this dramatic opening.

However, the quartet also displayed sublime unity as an ensemble. The homorhythmic beginning of the adagio seamlessly coalesced into a single curtain of sound, before Gerchikov and Even-Tov engaged in a beautifully synchronized melodic dialogue. The quartet’s attention to timbre was particularly impressive in this movement, with violist Jan Grüning‘s dynamic swells emanating from the ensemble with vibrancy and warmth. The collective musicality of the quartet continued in the menuetto, Gerchikov’s jocular slurs were punctuated by delightfully contrasting staccato rhythms in the ensemble’s off beats. The fourth movement showcased the ensemble’s strength in communicating the subtle nuances of Haydn’s writing, as all four musicians coordinated the dramatic dynamic contrasts with beautiful precision. 

The cornerstone of the entire performance, however, was the quartet’s rendition of Ravel’s Quartet in F, a magnificent staple of the chamber music canon. Gerchikov, Grüning, and Even-Tov captured the coloristic harmonies of Ravel’s soundscape with delicate grace, providing a gently undulating backdrop for violinist Alexandra Kazovsky‘s lyrical and commanding interpretation of the melody. Grüning and Kavosky’s interpretation of the second theme masterfully captured the mystery and beauty of Ravel’s composition, especially when Grüning extracted a richly resonant sound from his instrument during the solo viola episodes. In the second movement, the agitated pizzicato strokes of the ensemble provided powerful momentum. There was a visceral, almost obsessed intensity in the quartet’s interpretation which propelled the music forward, yet the four artists performing also knew when to calmly pause for moments of intimate beauty. In this regard, Kazovsky especially stood out as a powerful solo voice, holding out each gloriously sustained pitch in the upper register of her violin to its final breath. 

In the third movement, the exchange of the opening theme between all four players was played with a darkly mysterious yet effusively warm quality, each musician briefly suspending time through his/her respective melodic interlude. Similarly, Kavosky and Grüning traded dazzling arpeggios with vivacity, evoking the graceful pace of drifting clouds. This was interrupted (in a most dramatically appropriate fashion) by the furiously stormy chromatic runs and rapidly descending whole-tone harmonies of the fourth movement. The forward-moving 5/8 rhythm was played with fervid intensity by the ensemble, the sound almost exploding from their instruments with a marvelously sonorous quality. 

Following intermission, the quartet was joined by the festival’s artistic director William Ransom, also an accomplished pianist. The newly formed quintet performed Robert Schumann’s classic Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44. At first, it seemed as if the piano would overpower the string consort, as the ivories dominated the sound of the ensemble in the opening thematic gesture. However, Ransom quickly adjusted his volume, and went on to demonstrate exceptional versatility as both an accompanist and soloist. Whether he was gently accompanying Grüning’s and Even-Tov’s gorgeously synchronized viola/cello duets or stepping out of the texture as a soloist, Ransom dominated the keyboard with commanding finesse. Ransom and the quartet continued to shine in this work, a musical masterpiece that transcends the chamber setting. The ensemble transformed the intimate setting of a quintet into a larger-than-life tone poem at certain moments, demonstrating the versatility and wide musical range of all five artists on stage.