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Ariel Quartet Full of Noises in Berg

It occurred to me last night, as I approached the door of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Hammer Auditorium, that Ionarts had not been there since the last time we reviewed the Klavier Trio Amsterdam, back in 2009. Furthermore, although we have reviewed violist Roger Tapping playing the Mozart quintets with string quartets (like the Auryn, Jupiter, Parker, and Daedalus) over the years, we had also not managed to review one of his concerts with the Ariel Quartet, although they have been playing at the Corcoran and other Washington venues on a fairly regular basis. The Corcoran has perhaps the finest auditorium for chamber music in the city, but its concert series has been cut back to just a few events each season. The Ariel Quartet was back on Friday night to put some energy back into chamber music at the Corcoran, playing quartets by Beethoven and Berg, plus one of the exquisite string quintets of Mozart, joined by ex-Takács violist Roger Tapping. After some trouble with the light settings for the stage, forcing the group to play the Beethoven in crepuscular darkness, the group gave a knockout performance of the Berg.

The Ariel Quartet, formed in Jerusalem in 1998, hit the American classical music world around 2006, coming out of the New England Conservatory of Music with a full head of steam. They managed a third prize at the Banff Competition in 2007 (the year that the TinAlley Quartet took first and the Zemlinsky Quartet took second) and ultimately graduated from NEC last year, moving on to further studies at the Musik Academie in Basel, but critics -- like Robert Battey for the Post in 2008 -- have not always been impressed by much beyond their obvious technical skill. The group literally sunk its teeth into Beethoven's third quartet (op. 18, no. 3), with a violence of attack and a tone that was more searing than glowing, a performance that was all frenetic energy and sharp edges. The tempo of the outer movements was pushed so fast that most rhythmic details had to be glossed over, most disturbingly in the closing Presto, and the third movement tripped over itself in much the same way. The second movement oozed a little more expansively but felt more precious than profound.

Since the Ariels did win the Székely Prize, for the best performance of a Bartók quartet at the Banff Competition, it was probably not a surprise that their performance of the Berg string quartet (op. 3) was the concert's high point. The range of tone color, shape of phrase, and clarity of form not only showed the group's predilection for more biting, dissonant harmony, not to mention the greater independence of the parts, but revealed their indifference -- contempt is probably too strong -- for the Beethoven quartet. Here the four musicians listened more to one another, not as in the Beethoven straining so much against their parts that they pushed first violinist Alexandra Kazovsky into a forced, acidic sound. The various effects of Berg's score, like harmonics and raspy sul ponticello playing, all served as part of a well-conceived drama that arched over the two movements.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Ariel Quartet (Washington Post, January 31)
The presence of Tapping on the second viola part in Mozart's fifth string quintet (D major, K. 593) seemed to mollify the younger musicians, with the high strings in a purely blended ensemble answering each of the opening phrases of the cello in the first movement's introduction (a dreamy section that returns memorably in the movement's coda). Freed by the second viola part taking some of the accompanying motifs, Mozart gave the first viola greater independence, revealing the sinewy tone of violist Sergey Taraschchansky, especially in the many sections given to the two violas with cello in the slow movement. The suave trio of the Menuetto movement had a bubbly quality, driven by the arpeggiated flourishes introduced by the first violin, although Gershon Gerchikov, who sat first violin for the second half, was not quite clean enough in the many passages of detached notes of the somewhat lightweight final movement.

You have to wait only a week for the next concert at the Corcoran, featuring the return of Klavier Trio Amsterdam next Friday (February 4, 8 pm), including two Beethoven trios (op. 1/3, and the 'Kakadu Variations', op. 121a) and the second piano trio of Saint-Saëns.

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