Mendelssohn / Schubert, Afiara Quartet and Alexander Quartet
(released on January 12, 2010)
Foghorn Classics CD1995 | 68'46"
Mendelssohn, String Quartet No. 2 (A minor, op. 13) and Octet for Strings (E-flat major, op. 20) | Schubert, Quartettsatz (C minor, D. 703)
The Afiara's debut disc, carried on the Alexander Quartet's Foghorn Classics label, reveals them as a brash group of musicians, with a muscular sound that can be too steely, at least in the Mendelssohn and Schubert works recorded here. The quartet plays on modern instruments, except for first violinist Yuri Cho, whose Francesco Ruggieri instrument from around 1695, can be quite dulcet. The energy applied to loud and active passages can be viscerally thrilling, but it can just as easily lead the players to push their instruments to the breaking point as they scrub the strings for more sound (for example, listen to the ramp up of sound in the second movement of the Mendelssohn op. 13, with some sour notes starting at about 4:19). While there are soft moments on the disc, too, one sometimes has the feeling that the sound is compressed to the point of shallowness or scratchiness (as in the third movement of op. 13). This is yet another reason why the work of groups like the Eroica Quartet is so important: their discs of Mendelssohn remain among my favorites, because the historical instruments can give us some notion of appropriate dynamic range.
Their performance of Schubert's Quartettsatz raises similar concerns that the group should switch to a lower octane (see Allan Kozinn's review from a performance this fall, including some Mendelssohn). One would have expected a stronger result in the Mendelssohn octet, too, given the long collaboration of the two quartets as teachers and students -- the Afiara Quartet has just taken up the position of graduate ensemble-in-residence at the Juilliard School last fall. Again, it is the raw power that impresses the most in this performance, the willingness to push the tone (or tempo) to its edge and beyond, with resulting problems of ensemble unity and intonation. Exciting but not essential listening, at least not yet.
The Afiara and Alexander Quartets will play a free concert of modern music at the Library of Congress on Friday night (April 16, 8 pm).