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For reasons that haven't been disclosed but maybe because of its similarity with an Emerson String Quartet program performed in Charlotte eight weeks earlier, the Ariel Quartet didn't perform the works by Mozart, Britten, and Debussy that they had previously announced for their spot in the 2013-14 Davidson College Concert Series. Instead, they came to Tyler-Tallman Hall with two late quartets, one by Haydn, written in his late sixties, and one by Beethoven, in his middle fifties, two years before his death. Between these came the most frequently recorded quartet by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a student of Debussy and Max Reger who died in a Nazi concentration camp. If the young, unrecorded quartet – including cellist Amit Even-Tov, violist Jan Grüning, and, time-sharing the first violin chair, Gershon Gerchikov and Alexandra Kazovsky – were worried about comparisons with the much-decorated Emersons, their fears proved groundless.
In technique, spirit, and musical maturity, Ariel is already at the highest level. With Kazovsky playing first violin on Haydn's Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1, there were sharp accents from the start of the opening Allegro con spirito at a pace that eclipsed the tempo of the celebrated Lindsay Quartet recording, yet the sound remained as jocund as Kazlovsky's facial expression. Meanwhile Grüning, entrusted with a fair share of the early exposition, retained a pleasing tone as the movement set off at a nimble gallop. Backing up the main lines, Even-Tov played with the zest of a front-liner, while Gerchikov was comparatively unassuming in his supporting role. Kazovsky continued to be impressive in the Adagio with wondrous phrasing and silvery tone that stayed firm midway into the movement through the softest pianissimos I can remember. Here I also discovered the full lusciousness of Even-Tov's cello tone, though still complementary with Kazovsky's lead.
The first violinist produced some jubilant sforzandos emerging from the soft section of the Adagio, but the true difference between what the Ariels bring to the work and the Lindsays' recording became most manifest in the penultimate Presto in 3/4 time. You could say that the Lindsays are closer to Haydn's vantage point in this scherzo-like Menuetto. The Ariels sped the tempo to a truer presto, with a coy and folksy élan that made the music sound like it was written in Haydn's youth rather than by an old papa looking back. There was also a little more mischief in the closing Allegro, which contains an element of unpredictability we more readily associate with Beethoven. After some initial uptempo fireworks by Kazovsky, answered by some fiery bravura from Even-Tov, tempos abruptly braked or accelerated. The last iteration of the playful delicate B theme was truly arch and cute just before the delayed ending.
Grüning confined his opening remarks almost exclusively to Schulhoff's String Quartet No. 1, concisely sketching the composer's biography and making sure we understood that the music we would hear was written long before the Holocaust cast a pall over his life. That advisory was particularly useful when the ensemble tore into the opening Presto con fuoco, as fiercely festive as a Bartók quartet can be. While Gerchikov took over the first violin chair here, Grüning had the heftiest share of the exposition. Throughout the piece, Gerchikov was called upon to display his proficiency in advanced techniques, beginning with the ferocious strumming interspersed with the conventional bowing that distinguished his aggressive accompanist role in the opening movement. Schulhoff's Allegretto began lyrically with Gerchikov's greeting somewhat dwarfed by Grüning's response, which melted into an eerie ensemble episode that fully earned the composer's "malinconia grotesca" marking.
The hushed outbreak of harmonics in these forlorn passages foreshadowed Gerchikov's more striking feats with harmonics in the Allegro giocoso alla slovacca that followed. Between the passages of folksy mayhem, Gerchikov's marching harmonics sounded as if he were a piper, and in the final frolic, Even-Tov beat percussion on the face of her cello with her bow. Even-Tov and Grüning were at the forefront of the lachrymose Andante until Gerchikov launched into the final movement's anguished lament. The eerie ensemble that followed was darker and murkier than the previous grotesqueries, sounding an unmistakable kinship with the quartets that Shostakovich would begin writing 11 years after this 1924 piece. Even-Tov's ostinato, playing steadily as the main melody faded, became more and more fateful, like a clock among the ruins, an effect that the Aviv Quartet's recording on Naxos captures best. (The Peterson Quartet recording on Capriccio should also be preferred to the Brandis on Nimbus if you're interested in exploring this visionary work.)
With Kazovsky returning to the first violin chair, the Ariels tackled Beethoven's Op. 127, in E-flat, with vigor and grace. Not aiming for the full majesty of the Quartetto Italiano's more jagged and histrionic account of the Maestoso: Allegro, the Ariel approach was far closer to the Orion Quartet's in its naturalness and lucidity, with no shortage of fire, steel, or gravitas. Kazovsky and Grüning carried the heaviest burdens in the exposition, the latter so convincing that I began to suspect that the ensemble might be tilting its repertoire in the direction of featuring his viola. In the long Adagio, Kazovsky and Even-Tov were the first to emerge from the serene harmony. No matter how the tempo shifted, Kazovsky was flawless but never slick, her phrasing and pacing seeming like the only way the music could be played. Even-Tov was crucial in re-establishing the tranquility of the movement and subsequently rousing it, but Kazovsky was admirably poised, taking over gradually rather than impetuously.
Even-Tov launched the main theme of the Scherzando vivace, and Grüning gave it a quasi-fugal feel echoing her before Kazovsky entered dynamically, spiking the melody with sforzandos and driving the tempo to full throttle. There were plenty of hairpin turns in mood as exuberant outbursts lurked behind every sudden hush, with Kazovsky handling the dizziest celebrations while Even-Tov complemented her, adding richness to the overall effect. Though there were occasionally rather dark shadings for a major-key work, Kazovsky seemed to have even more fun in the rousing Finale, gliding freely one moment, pouncing the next, grasping the Beethoven pulse and reveling in the sudden contrasts. Once last time, Grüning showed his mettle in the lead, as smooth and appealing as ever. Durham residents will have a chance to hear the Ariel Quartet plus cellist Alisa Weilerstein on February 8 at Baldwin Auditorium. Concertgoers there can see for themselves how handsomely they can follow the Emerson Quartet, who play at the same venue on December 7. I'm already a believer.
Next up on this Davidson series is Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval, on February 2; for details, click here.
For details of the Ariel's engagement at Duke, click here.