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Saturday night Duke Performances, in collaboration with the Chamber Arts Society of Durham, presented the Quatour Arod, a string quartet based in Paris. The young members, all in their 20s, have garnered an impressive array of awards, including the 2016 First Prize of the ARD in Munich, "the Everest" of competitions; the award has been won by only four string quartets in the 21st century.
The group takes its name from Legolas' horse in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy; in Tolkien's mythic Rohirric language, arod means swift. The group currently serves as artists-in-residence along with the Artemis Quartet at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels. The members are Jordan Victoria and Alexandre Vu, violins, Tanguy Parisot, viola, and Samy Rachid, cello. All four played period instruments made in the 16th and 17th centuries.
George Gopen, Director of the CAS, welcomed the virtual audience before the concert "as we try to culturally dogpaddle our way through this world pandemic." He gave some background about the quartet as well as some insights into the music we were about to hear.
Up first was the Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1 "Razumovsky" by Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827). The three Op. 59 quartets were commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Vienna (Count Andrey Razumovsky) in 1806. The Count ask the composer to include a Russian tune in each; Beethoven obliged with a tune in only the first two.
Beethoven's compositional output is often divided into three style periods. The Op. 59 quartets fall into what is termed the composer's "Heroic" style, made most famous by the 3rd ("Eroica") and the 5th symphonies. This quartet is much longer and grander in scale than his previous Op. 18 (set of six) quartets.
The Quatuor Arod dove into the opening Allegro with a brisk tempo that launched the concert with spirited energy. The quartet played the movement with daring passion, bringing Beethoven's sudden changes in texture and mood to the fore. The middle section has some independent lines, and the quartet was careful to bring out the important melodic lines, whether they were in the cello, viola, or 2nd violin.
The Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando second movement serves as a type of scherzo that is not particularly joyful, but rather built around a "knocking" repeated note. Quatuor's playing of the movement was very lively, with some fun humor as the main melody was tossed around all four instruments.
The players dug into the deep emotion contained in the third movement Adagio. The sadness and sorrow in the score were ever-present. The fourth movement proceeds without a break, and the Russian tune immediately appears in the cello. This is a buoyant movement, and the quartet played with exuberant enthusiasm. This movement solidified what the listener had already heard – remarkably tight ensemble (helped by all four watching each other and giving clear cues), superb intonation, and the confidence that comes with musicians who play regularly and often with each other.
The concert concluded with a performance of the slow second movement from the Quartet in D minor, D.810, "Death and the Maiden" (1824) by Franz Schubert (Austria, 1797-1828). The movement is a set of theme and variations derived from the composer's song of the same name, which he wrote in 1817.
The solemn nature is immediately apparent with the insistent rhythm and minor mode. The third variation especially stood out as a model of energetic virtuosity from the entire ensemble. It also serves as a foil to the following variation, more optimistically set in a major key. The pathos, however, returns in the finale, played with intense passion. But surprisingly, the movement ends with solemn tranquility.
The playing was outstanding as all members of the quartet paid close attention to changes in dynamics and displayed incredible rhythmic flexibility, ending with utmost tenderness.
The locale and the date of the recording were not provided, but the acoustics were terrific, and the softly lit room provided a nice venue. After hearing this ensemble perform, one understands why they have received so many awards and accolades. We left the concert hoping that we will be able to hear the fantastic Quatuor Arod again in the future.