November 14, 2019
The concert opened with one of the 20th century’s most compelling testaments of grief, terror, violence. The dark mood was broken by one of the 18th century’s warmest expressions of joy and peace. Then, as if to warn that peace is illusory and joy short-lived, the 19th century intruded with a feverish presentiment of death.
The very order of the program provoked thought, as did the performances, when the Ariel String Quartet visited Temple Beth-El on Nov. 10 for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society. Formed in Israel 20 years ago and now based at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the Ariel plunged into the abysses of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in
C minor and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden.” The San Antonio Symphony’s distinguished principal clarinet, Ilya Shterenberg, joined the Ariel in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A and, as a sort of cherry on top, just the eventful final movement of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat.
Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is a leafy bower on a sunny day. The music exemplifies the Enlightenment project of a world in balance, a peaceful, productive society of free and equal individuals. The piece played a crucial role in the 1983 final episode of M*A*S*H, a television series set in a US Army field hospital during the Korean War: Five Chinese soldiers surrender to Maj. Winchester, who ascertains that they are musicians and works with them to rehearse the Mozart quintet. It was a stroke of bittersweet genius to conclude an 11-season series about war with this music of humane aspiration, knowing that more wars and more millions of deaths lay ahead.
The performance by the Aril and Mr. Shterenberg was elegant, agile, and polished all around. A touch more rusticity might have been welcome in the Menuetto. In the finale, the minor-key third variation occasioned some especially trenchant shading of dynamics by violist Jan Grüning.
In both Shostakovich and Schubert, the Ariel made interpretive choices that, if not always convincing, were consistently interesting. The opening Largo of the Shostakovich was suffused with an attitude of prayerful mourning, but – to my ears – the despair and desolation were muted. Then all hell broke loose in the second movement, which the Ariel took at a tornadic tempo that suggested a frantic flight from danger. One might complain that the first movement didn’t adequately set up the violence of the second, or one might appreciate how the subdued first movement heightened the shock of the second. Either way, these interpretive choices invited the listener to think about the music. An unusually quick tempo in the fourth movement (another Largo) also cut two ways – it somewhat reduced emotional weight of that movement but also enhanced the sense of line and propulsion.
The Shostakovich quartet has both personal and political resonance. In Schubert’s Quartet in D minor, the resonance is entirely personal. He composed this work, an indispensable masterpiece of the period, early in 1824, at about the time he called himself (in a letter to a friend) “the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world.” He was chronically impoverished and physically unattractive, and by 1824 he probably sensed that he hadn’t long to live – he would die in 1828 at age 31.
The Ariel’s performance was a marvel of discipline and intelligence. The troupe gave full vent to the slashing fury of the opening theme, but sacrificed nothing in tonal beauty and balanced harmony. In the second movement, a set of variations on the somber melody Schubert had composed earlier for the song “Death and the Maiden,” the opening statement had the musical equivalent of a ghostly pallor – played in a whisper, without vibrato, and with a bit of a rasp. The finale attained Beethovenian intensity, and the last page was taken at a true prestissimo – or maybe a hyper-prestissimo.
Throughout both Shostakovich and Schubert, the Ariel found details that clarified or punctuated the narrative arc, and were never gratuitous.
The Ariel’s violinists alternate in the first chair, and their sounds differ markedly. Gershon Gerchikov projected a fairly narrow, richly grained sound that was well suited to the first violin parts in Mozart and Weber. Alexandra Kazovsky’s warmer, plumper sound worked nicely in Shostakovich and Schubert. Mr. Grüning on viola and Amit Even-Tov on cello completed this exceptionally well-matched and unfailingly musical quartet.
The Ariel String Quartet: Jan Grüning, viola; Amit Even-Tov, cello; Gershon Gerchikov, violin; Alexandra Kazovsky, violin.
Photo: Marco Borggreve