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Afiara and Alexander Quartets

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn / Schubert, Afiara Quartet and Alexander Quartet

(released on January 12, 2010)
Foghorn Classics CD1995 | 68'46"

Online scores:
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 Quartet was founded in 2006 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, by four Canadian musicians who studied with the members of the Alexander Quartet, who are the ensemble-in-residence at San Francisco State University. They hit the big time by winning the 2008 Concert Artists Guild Competition in New York and then by taking second prize at the ARD Competition -- much to the consternation of our man in Munich, Jens Laurson, who observed that they stumbled badly on their Beethoven in the final round, having played their best in Berg's Lyric Suite in the first round (among several questions he raised about the jury's choices). That last bodes well, at least, for their upcoming concert of modern music at the Library of Congress on Friday night (April 16, 8 pm): they will join forces again with their mentors, the Alexander Quartet, to play Martinů’s sextet and Shostakovich’s octet, as well a set of modern pieces by Wolfe, Harrison, Zorn, and Vrebalov.

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).


jfl said...

Third Prize, I seem to recall... and I wasn't so much consternated at their prize (well deserved on account of the early performances, after all) but the German (anti-music) Quartet that co-won one of the second prizes. :-)

While we're on the subject:
From Fanfare Mag.

The Art of Becoming Unnecessary: Concert Artists Guild

Of CAG’s current artists, I have heard—and much enjoyed—the Canadian Afiara Quartet, formerly in residence at San Francisco, now the graduate quartet in residence at the Juilliard School of Music. At the 2008 ARD International Music Competition they made an excellent impression and won a third prize, a striking achievement given that the string quartet category (along with viola and voice) traditionally comprises the ARD Competition’s most competitive and prestigious prizes. At the time, I wrote that I enjoyed the Afiara Quartet’s “swift and lean, finely spun tone in Beethoven, suggesting something between extraordinary sophistication and timidity, their understatement and clarity, ultra-sensitive touch and the violins’ delightfully sustained pianissimos.” And about their interpretation of Berg’s Lyric Suite in the first round I wrote, “Three pieces into the contest, and already time for gushing: The same lean qualities but [still] more engaged than the Beethoven and more forceful—this had transparency and tenacity right next to each other. … Hushed voices, shivers, and lots of spunk: The four performers dug deep and came up with riches.”

To be fair, they also had lesser moments (in the finale, unfortunately), but looking back on how I heard them through every round, I’d like to think that I can now see the handwriting of CAG advice. Certainly in their stylish appearance: They may have been bested by three quartets on the last day (two second prizes were given that year), but had an award been given for the best-dressed performer or ensemble, only the Afiara Quartet could have won. With, they also had—have—one of the more thoughtful and functional Web sites of the participants. CAG really seems to have a hand with string quartets. That shows if you add to the above two the Pacifica Quartet, an established quantity on the circuit with top-notch Carter and Mendelssohn recordings, and whose spunky Ligeti interpretations I have had the pleasure to hear several times.

Anonymous said...

The Afiara String Quartet performs for Washington Performing Arts Society on the 2010-11 season's Kreeger String Series next April. They'll play Haydn, Berg and Beethoven.

tom said...

Nope, jfl. I was visiting Munich during that time and attended the string quartet finals. The Afiara won 2nd prize. The tie was for third.