Lucid Culture


Old Ideas, New Insight from the American String Quartet

At the American String Quartet’s concert last night at Merkin Hall, a small handful of Bach practice pieces threatened to upstage a late Beethoven quartet and then Bartok’s immortal String Quartet No. 6. That at first might seem like a sure sign of trouble, but let’s let violist Daniel Avshalomov explain. From his program notes: “Despite the luxury of our repertory, if we don’t borrow Bach we never get to play it – not to mention that the composer himself constantly rearranged music of his own and of others.” Avshalomov was referring to his arrangement of three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which the ensemble played with flair, unselfconscious intensity and extraordinarily fresh insight. Avshalomov was right on the money by making the case for those works as being ideal for string quartet. Today, most of us who know these pieces think of them as organ works. However, Bach probably didn’t write them for the organ: instead, it’s more likely that he intended them for the harpsichord, since most of the organs of his era were already tuned to something different than even intonation, i.e. the modern piano scale that Bach championed, to which a harpsichord can be tuned – or not. Yet a harpsichord can’t sustain the pieces’ longest notes. Not only does a string quartet have what’s essentially infinite sustain: a string arrangement allows for subtleties of attack and timbre that a harpsichordist or organist can only dream of.

So with a not-so-simple shift from single instrument to quartet, these pieces took on a whole new life. The Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in F (BWV 857) suddenly had unanticipated, dancing liveliness…and stark grandeur from cellist Wolfram Koessel, as he carried what would be a pedal line in an organ arrangement. By contrast, the Prelude and Fugue for 5 Voices in B-flat Minor (BWV 867) had a plaintive Vivaldiesque gravitas; the Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in G Minor (BWV 885) offset jaunty precision with apprehensive call-and-response. Can someone please commission some more of these? Avant-garde ensembles jump through hoops with electronics and everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to breathe new life into works like these, when in this case all it took was an ambitious violist and his like-minded compatriots to appropriate them and make them indelibly their own.

How did they do Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op. 135? Briskly and confidently, yet with meticulous attention to dynamics. They’ve done this piece, and for that matter the whole Beethoven cycle, umpteen times, yet this performance was bright and crisp and obviously a labor of love. The lively pulse of the opening Allegretto reached a high point with the end of the scherzo that closes the second movement, vivid to the point where the entire audience got the joke. Conventional wisdom is that the chilling, anguished series of tritones and their permutations in the concluding movement are also a joke, albeit an inside one. An alternative viewpoint, reinforced by this performance, is that they’re a cruel and possibly deathly irony: “Must we? Yes, we must.” And things don’t look good.

Things got even more bleak with the Bartok. It’s a shattering piece of music, one of the darkest gems in the string quartet repertory; like the Beethoven, this group knows it well. Spine-tingling moments abounded: understated savagery when the sarcastic, somewhat OCD march theme of the second movement reappeared in the third, or its chilling minimalist modernism as violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney played dissonant microtones off each other, Carney sometimes reaching for a pianissimo so ethereal it was almost inaudible. Koessel’s matter-of-factness with the elegaic, closing pizzicato riff underscored its early WWII-angst with a quiet mournfulness that was impactful to the extreme. Fans of acclaimed ensembles like the American String Quartet tend to take them for granted. But we shouldn’t: there were actually some empty seats in the hall last night.

May 2, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The American String Quartet with Natsumi Kuboyama at the Fabbri Library, NYC 5/12/10

Eighteen-year-old Japanese pianist Natsumi Kuboyama, the winner of all sorts of competitions and a performer since the age of six, opened last night’s program at upper East Side hideaway the Fabbri Library with the Sinfonia from Bach’s C Minor Partita. With a surprisingly forceful attack in the opening measures, she showed some moxie that otherwise never made itself known during the rest of her solo performance. Instead, she showed off a turbo-hydramatic legato and world-class articulation throughout perfect if perfectly safe renditions of two Chopin works, the Ballade in F, Op. 38 and the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, a schlocky Japanese rock ballad and then, most strikingly, the bracingly modernist, otherworldly, Toru Takamitsu-esque Prelude by Kunihiro Nakamura.

To fans of classical and new music alike, the American String Quartet needs no introduction, combining an avant garde enthusiast’s passion and counterintuitive intelligence with a historically-informed purism and a seemingly effortless technical skill. Effortless, possibly, because, as violist Daniel Avshalomov opined, they play the most exciting repertoire anywhere. Last time we caught them they were tackling the abrasive intensity of Irving Fine along with Robert Sirota’s anguished, haunting 9/11 Triptych. This time out, they ran through a pleasantly familiar program with special flair and an unaffected sensitivity to joy. The highlight was the Schubert Quartetsatz in C Minor, D. 70s, which as Avshalomov reminded was as close to a complete string quartet as Schubert ever wrote (he left behind only this first movement). Ablaze with unpredictable counterpoint and gemlike melody, it left no doubt as to how much fun it is to play: it is a team effort with star turns for everyone. When cellist Wolfram Koessel’s delightfully casual, growling undertones led the rest of the ensemble into the final series of little exchanges, it was nothing short of exquisite.

They also brought Kuboyama out of her shell with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44. Avshalomov explained the piece as Schumann’s unabashedly delighted response to having discovered what a piano and a string quartet can do together – it gave Kuboyama the chance to take her game up a level, notably throughout its many nocturnal, cantabile ripples and bends, towards which she seems to have a natural inclination. The rest of the ensemble romped through the call-and-response volleys of the opening Allegro Brillante, gave the swells of the second movement’s march an apt epic grandeur, barrelled through the playful dance of the Scherzo and made the most of the brilliant bittersweetness of the finale.

They closed with the first of the “late” Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat. “After the first part, you might imagine all the lights turned off, especially in this room,” Avshalomov suggested, which considering the medieval wood-paneled ambience, made sense. After they’d negotiated the tricky waves of the Maestoso Allegro, the Adagio provided a warmly cantabile architecture for violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney to embellish with a silvery vibrato, Avshalomov and Koessel each enhancing the plaintiveness in the lower registers. After all that, the symphonic crescendos of the Scherzando Vivace and the sterner, somewhat heroic Allegro finale were delivered with equal amounts spot-on precision and gusto. The crowd snapped out of their reverie and hoped for an encore, but by now it was ten in the evening and time for wine and snacks. The American String Quartet’s next two concerts are at Bargemusic on May 15 at 8 PM, repeating on May 16 at 3 PM with music of Mozart and Shostakovich along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” This is it for the Fabbri Library’s season, a sonically and visually delightful (and refreshingly friendly) space whose concert series will continue in the fall.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment