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Aron Quartett, Library of Congress

Aron QuartettOn Friday night, Vienna Week concluded on the free concert series of the Library of Congress, with a performance by the Aron Quartett. Based in Vienna since 1998, the group is quartet-in-residence at the Arnold Schoenberg Center and gives many concerts in its favored repertoire, Viennese composers of the 18th through 20th centuries, and Schoenberg especially. (Their name, I assume, comes from the title of Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron.) The quartet's members were allowed to play on their choice of the Library of Congress's Stradivarius instruments, and in particular Christophe Pantillon got excellent sound from the Castelbarco cello (1697), as did Georg Hamann from the Tuscan-Medici viola (1690).

The high point of the program was, in many ways, the central piece, Schoenberg's third string quartet, op. 30, which the Aron Quartett played with authority and sensitivity. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the patroness of American chamber music who commissioned this quartet 80 years ago, in 1927, would have been proud. The composer's manuscript score, in fastidiously neat pencil but fading, was on display in a case in the entrance hall of the auditorium, along with some related correspondence and the commission check from Mrs. Coolidge. It is always good to see music history in the making.

Aron Quartett:

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Schoenberg, Complete String Quartets (2004)
The first movement contrasts long melodies, usually in first violin and cello, flowing over a constant pattern of murmuring notes. The Aron Quartett's extensive work on this music gave them consummate control of the texture, so that lyric melodies -- yes, even in Schoenberg, especially in the beautiful slow movement -- are given primacy. The third movement turns a little pointillistic, Webernesque, developing the main theme that ultimately returns in a homophonic statement to end the Intermezzo. In the final movement, the mood becomes caustic, with a sneering theme that would not be out of place in Shostakovich. If you have a chance to buy the Aron Quartett's 3-CD set of the complete Schoenberg quartets (link here for Amazon UK), take it.

It is instructive to place the Second Viennese School in its geographic and historical context. The Schoenberg quartet seemed right in line with an example from the First Viennese School, Haydn's D minor quartet (op. 76, no. 2), known as The Fifths because of the two descending fifths that make up the first movement's main theme. That distinctive motif gets treated fugally in the development, even in an interesting stretto, all of which the Aron Quartett highlighted well. It percolates over the pedal point that leads back to the recapitulation, too, which concluded this excellent performance, at just the right pacing in all the movements. This quartet has a somewhat odd Menuetto, a little rustic in character, with the instruments doubled in an austere two-part texture, imitative in a style not unlike a Bach suite movement. The fourth movement is back to characteristic Haydn, with a rondo theme broken up by sudden stops. The Aron Quartett took a very fast tempo, again right about where it should be, with impressive technical flourish.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Aron Quartett (Washington Post, March 5)
Korngold is another Aron Quartett specialty, and I hope that they are recording a complete set of his three quartets this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death. The third and final quartet, op. 34, was composed in 1945, heralding Korngold's hopeful return to concert composition. It is an ingenious and luscious melding of more dissonant writing with reworkings of the composer's own Hollywood film scores. (The composer's manuscript sketches and final manuscript score were both on display in the entrance hall -- eat your heart out, Jessica.)

In the second movement, the viola and cello hammered out a somewhat menacing ostinato, while the two chattering violins traded melodic jabs. That more dissonant scherzo section provided dramatic contrast to the luscious trio music, reworked from Korngold's score for Between Two Worlds (1944). The shimmering, elegiac music of the third movement, reworked from the score for The Sea Wolf (1941), is reminiscent of the famous Adagio for Strings, initially part Barber's first string quartet in 1936. The agitated fourth movement speeds up until the pace is almost harried, for a satisfying conclusion. Ecstatic applause earned the audience a Korngold encore, the Intermezzo from the second string quartet, a happy, rollicking piece with a head-nodding theme. For excellent programming matched by superb playing, this was a concert well worth attending.

The next truly compelling concert at the Library of Congress is the Jerusalem Quartet (April 11, 8 pm).

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