The Asheville Chamber Music Series opened its 63rd season in its still-being-renovated home of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville. The Ariel String Quartet, in residence at Cincinnati Conservatory, put on a spectacular program spanning a century of summative works by Haydn (String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4; Hob.III:78), Beethoven (String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, No. 15 ), and Bartók (String Quartet No. 1, Sz.40). As is typical with these concerts, it was necessary to arrive early to secure a seat, as the house filled quickly with devoted chamber music lovers.

The members of Ariel, originally formed in Israel and together for 16 years, are rising stars in the chamber music world. The ensemble consists of violinists Gershon Gerchikov (first violin during the first half) and Alexandra Kazovsky, violist Jan Grüning, and cellist Amit Even-Tov. Their recent award, the Cleveland Quartet Award, caps a list of other recognitions, including the Grand Prize at the 2006 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and First Prize at the international competition “Franz Schubert and The Music Of Modernity” in Graz, Austria, in 2003. They tour internationally, especially in Israel, and have won critical acclaim for their performances of Beethoven’s and Bartók’s quartets.

The program opened with Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet, so named for its rising figure in the first violin in the opening movement. Haydn was at the peak of his powers in the mid-1790s when he composed the six quartets of Op. 76; one hears his experimentation with form and content in this work. He obsessively returns to the material of the contemplative introduction again and again in the first movement, as though he couldn’t quite relinquish it. The Ariel gave an expansive interpretation each time this music returned, forming a sharp contrast to the spirited material of the rest of the movement. Their calibration of the most prominent “speaking” voice was excellent throughout. These are careful and sensitive players who know how to draw an audience into their performance without overplaying the music. The most charming moments to this listener were in the Trio following the Menuetto with its weirdly wandering violin parts played in unison over a drone.

In sharp contrast to the Haydn was the Bartók quartet from 1908-09, worlds apart, and yet stemming from the traditions laid down by the German masters. Bartók’s quartet is confessional in nature, as it was inspired by his unrequited love for Stefi Geyer a violinist for whom Bartók had composed a violin concerto. He used the theme from the concerto’s second movement as the theme of the first movement of the quartet and called it “my funeral dirge.” Dirge-like it is, a dark and brooding first movement Lento with a weeping descending motive and sinuous lines in a full-throated texture. The charm of the third movement (Introduzione: Allegro) was in its varied handling of Hungarian folk elements, here rhythmic and incessantly driving, and there more freely flowing in a parlando rubato. I was impressed by the emotional scope of this music, and gratified by the Ariel’s soulful interpretation. Unfortunately, from the way the movements were listed in the program one would not have known that the movements flow in pairs – movement one followed immediately by movement two; movement three flowing into movement four. No matter, though – the audience merely followed the gesturing of the players through to the work’s rousing conclusion.

After intermission was the colossal Beethoven Quartet, Op. 132, of 1824-25. The composer began writing this piece when he fell seriously ill, only to recover and complete it, refashioning some of what he’d already written into a five-movement piece. By the 1820s, Beethoven was composing for essentially modern string instruments, with their lengthened fingerboards and necks, more prominently arched bridges, and bows with frogs to facilitate the adjustment of the tension of the bow hair. All these innovations would enable Beethoven to write new kinds of technical demands into the music as never before.

The Ariel Quartet is known for their performance of this challenging work and they took to it like greeting an old friend. Central to the quartet, both in form and in spiritual depth, is the famous third movement, which Beethoven titled “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen” (A convalescent’s sacred song of thanksgiving to God). The hymn appears first in chorale style as a Molto Adagio and is followed by an Andante labeled “Neue Kraft fühlend” (Feeling new strength). The alternation of these two sections several times within the movement comprise nearly 20 minutes of some of the most profound music one will ever hear. The chorale section was stunningly portrayed by a minimal use of vibrato, resulting in a completely different tone color from the surrounding music. The skillful and soul-filled interpretation of this movement alone was the standout performance of the evening. The audience was deeply appreciative of their performance, and this listener came away deeply moved.

Note: The ensemble will perform again in Beckwith Recital Hall at UNCW on Saturday,. September 27, playing music by Mozart and Menachem Wiesenberg along with the Beethoven heard in Asheville. For details, see the sidebar.