The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville was packed to the gills for one of the finest concerts of this 63rd season of the Asheville Chamber Music Series. The American String Quartet, which began in 1976 when its original members were students at The Julliard School, demonstrated their complete mastery of three iconic quartets by composers who forged this exciting idiom of chamber music. We heard Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5, Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, and Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1. Each represented not only a unique work within each composer’s catalog, but forged new ground for others to consider when writing their own works. Violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov, and cellist Wolfram Koessel exhibited the highest level of musicianship throughout their exciting and exacting program. These seasoned players are simply thrilling to hear.

They began with the Haydn quartet, which was noted for its “Sturm und Drang” character – a new mode of expression for Haydn. As Avshalomov wrote in his excellent program notes, this work has “a capacity to startle” with its less predictable phrase lengths, sudden dynamic changes, and the “rare interruptive silence.” In the expert hands of these players, these moments were well paced within an otherwise polished and ordered framework. The second movement Minuetto still carried the fire of the first movement, sounding much more intense than the traditionally “polite” courtly dance. The third movement Adagio featured the extraordinary execution of improvisatory-sounding runs in Winograd’s first violin, which, in a stroke of genius, Haydn continued sporadically to the very end of the movement. The fourth movement, a relatively short fugue on two subjects, was a startling throwback to Baroque compositional procedure. The quartet performed this with judicious voicing and crowning intensity, bringing this work to a satisfying close.

Speaking before the performance of the Mozart quartet, Avshalomov addressed the audience about getting to know the composers as people through their music. Mozart was characterized as being “from another planet,” a composer who was vocally oriented and whose music was dominated by lyrical lines. And though the first movement Allegro moderato carried that lyrical orientation, it was not without its fiery ornamental runs or surprising low, ominous sounding trills. The second movement Andante showcased not only the ensemble’s gorgeous “singing” lines, but also their uncanny ability to make all changes in pacing sound completely effortless and as a single unit. The third movement had a declamatory angst made known through the use of more strident ranges and a dotted-eighth-sixteenth note figure which was cleverly reversed later in the first violin to pizzicato accompaniment in the lower three voices. The finale, a variation set, showcased the cohesiveness of interpretation of each new variation as it unfolded. Simply splendid playing!

After intermission came the Beethoven. Composed in 1806, it also is a milestone in the history of the string quartet literature. The features of his symphonic output of this, his heroic period, find their way here too – the explosions of runs, mood changes, dynamic changes that trigger a startle reflex, the expansion of form, and the impulse to develop ideas continually along the way. The temptation, one would surmise, would be to play this music with equally grandiose gestures – in fact, I’ve seen many young quartets do just this. Aside from a bit of foot noise, this ensemble performed this big music with no extraneous motions, and hence, did not distract from the music with their execution of it.

By contrast to the Mozart quartet, Beethoven’s is essentially rhythmically driven. By the second movement the obsessive rhythmic patterns were front and center, with a great deal of humor heard in Beethoven’s reorganization of metric patterns and the comic “finishing of one another’s phrases” in starched politeness. In the third movement Adagio, a completely different character was established, with the development and expansion of each idea equally interesting and exquisitely played. The accompanying figures wherever they appeared were so well rehearsed that they were as interesting to hear as the principal speaking voice(s). The fourth movement Allegro with its Russian theme was an ebb and flow of a huge cauldron of energy that brought the concert to a thrilling close. The audience was instantly on its feet in a resounding ovation for this magnificent ensemble.