Review: Ariel Quartet shows maturity and virtuosity in unexpected return to the city

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Substituting for an indisposed Doric String Quartet, the Ariel Quartet from Cincinnati presented the closing concert in Calgary Pro Musica’s highly successful current season. The program, similar to that originally scheduled, included a string quartet by Robert Schumann, a Beethoven quartet, and a modern work by Lera Auerbach.

Those with long memories may recall the performances of the Ariel Quartet at The Banff International String Quartet Competition and their previous appearance with Calgary Pro Musica some years ago. As before, the Quartet offered high-energy music making presented with impeccable clarity and impressive virtuosity. With experience, the Quartet’s level of polish and brio has increased, and they now perform with the purpose and confidence of quartets who know that they know what they are doing.

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This was particularly evident in the String Quartet No. 10 (“Frozen Dreams”) by Lera Auerbach, a remarkably successful composer now before the public. Originally from Russia, Auerbach is a superb pianist as well as a poet and visual artist. Clearly, a polymath, her music, especially her piano and chamber music, is vital and imaginative, the work of an intensely musical person able to incorporate brusque rhythms within works that also contain a strong melodic element.

The String Quartet No. 10 (“Frozen Dream”) constitutes a pictorial, philosophical reflection on the significance of winter presented in musical terms, the intellectual core of which is contained in the poem that accompanies the work. Encompassing the original textures and musical ideas, the quartet takes the listener, almost eerily, into the darkness of the emotions and feelings associated with winter, embracing both its barbaric elements and its sensual bleakness.

This last quality is achieved through a spare pizzicato accompaniment to high-placed melodies of telling intensity, the entire work one of the most interesting and convincing of modern works offered this year on the Pro Musica series. It was these qualities that were remarkably captured in this searching performance, quite noticeably stronger in expression than other performances I have heard. Auerbach’s music is not much known in Calgary and, of the composers before the public today, she is among the most interesting to listen to.

The opening quartet by Schumann was the last of his three quartets, one a little less performed than the other two. As with all the performances, it was, perhaps, in its focus on rhythm as the purveyor of character that was the most striking element. Schumann’s incessant dotted rhythms can sometimes outstay their welcome — but not here. In the first movement, the various treatments of the opening musical idea were presented with a full understanding of the nuances and differences in tone and emotion that constitute the way the music develops.

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Always there was that technical security and precise tuning that are the hallmarks of the best quartets, qualities that informed the final work on the program, the well-known Beethoven String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3. With its brilliant fugal finale, this is a popular quartet for competitions, a sure winner with an audience, as it was here.

There is always a temptation to take this quartet at a blistering pace, and this was the case here, a performance of tremendous excitement. For my taste, the framing movements might have been taken very slightly slower to draw from them still more of their poise and expressive qualities, but one could not help but be swept away by the sheer force and power with which the music was presented.

This was a performance of striking brilliance, the virtuosity of the players evident at every turn, with the climaxes milked for over-the-top excitement. The first two movements were the most satisfying to me, the transformation of Beethoven’s ideas and the remarkably complex treatment of the material were wonderfully realized. This was matched by an almost spectral account of the interior emotion of the barcarolle-style slow movement, presented with a coiled intensity of feeling. Why Beethoven is the king of the hill as a composer of string quartets was evident at every turn, a point commented upon by members of the audience as they left.

Somewhat oddly, the Quartet presented a short, fast movement of another quartet by Auerbach as an encore. While the style made for an odd contrast with the Beethoven quartet that preceded it, the encore served to show yet another facet of Auerbach’s remarkable music.

That the Ariel Quartet could step up to the plate with a concert of this quality and refinement on such short notice is a testament to their maturity as an ensemble and their stature in the crowded world of professional string quartets. They will be welcomed when they return.

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