By Colin Roshak
This past Sunday, the Ariel Quartet returned for their final concert as part of the Sitka Music Festival’s Winter Classics series. The quartet, in residence at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, first formed nearly 20 years ago and have performed around the world. Their visit this past week, with five concerts in four days, was dedicated to the exploration and celebration of perhaps Beethoven’s most enduring legacy — his string quartets.
The concert began with Beethoven’s ‘Malinconia’ quartet, op. 18 no. 6, a work that represents his mastery of the classical form. The world is refined choreography of theme and characters jumping and dancing around each other in perfect synchronization. The title of the piece derives from the final movement, a delicate adagio that blends into a breathtaking finale. To perform Beethoven is to commit to musical bipolarity and the Ariel Quartet was fully committed. One moment the quartet members were frozen, suspended in time in the long melancholic line and the next they were sawing away in the blistering, exhilarating finale.
Programming Shostakovich’s eighth quartet alongside two Beethoven quartets is audacious. In just over twenty minutes, Shostakovich crafts a world of suffocating beauty.
For much of the work, the first violin is pitted against the rest of the quartet. Violinist Alexandra Kozovsky played the part of Shostakovich himself, delicately balanced atop the pouding ensemble — for Shostakovich, in this semi-autobiographical work, is the one who knocks.
In the final moments of the piece, the cello steps to the fore with a haunting melody. For much of the piece, the cello plays a supporting character, but in the final scene she steals the show. Cellist Amit Even-Tov proved more than up to the challenge — her sound emerged from the texture with a pleading, twisting character that began the inevitable descent into the tortured, cool toned soundscape.
The Ariel Quartet paced the work beautifully, imbuing qualities of limitlessness and exhilaration that has the sonic short story reading like an epic. For all the pyrotechnics in the programs, Ariel is a soft spoken group. Their musicianship is thoughtful and understated. Nothing in their interpretations seemed excessive and they allowed the music to speak for itself. Much of their attention was directed at smaller details — colors, impulses and gestures, which allowed the larger forms and ideas to slowly present themselves, and for the audience to tell their own stories in the music.
While the “Malinconia” quartet represents Beethoven’s mastery over the classical form pioneered by Haydn, his later quartets are a very different kind of genius. Now ravaged by degenerative hearing loss and deteriorating health, Beethoven’s final works are full of quirks and intricacies that write an entirely different kind of story. A sense of resignation pervades these later works. Beethoven still musters jaunty characters and spinning musical curly cues, but they quickly tire.
In this final quartet, Beethoven trades bombast for pastorale vignettes. Ariel played with a simple transparency that evoked a sense of reflection and intimacy not always common in Beethoven’s works. Violist’s Jan Gruning pure and expressive tone matched the mood of the piece to perfection. His vibrating countermelodies in the third movements Lento coupled with the descending cello line into an ethereal, introspective ending.
Rarely one to end on a somber tone, the Allegro finale was a rousing finish to another fabulous Winter Classics with the (newly rebranded) Sitka Music Festival.