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Ariel Quartet
The Ariel Quartet

Music Preview NYC: Beethoven, Shostakovich and More from Ariel Quartet, Philippe Quint, Marc-André Hamelin and Sergey Antonov

Violinist Philippe Quint and the Ariel Quartet’s Jan Grüning speak with Blogcritics about their upcoming Aspect Chamber Music Series concerts in New York City

The last time the Aspect Chamber Music Series welcomed the Ariel Quartet to Bohemian National Hall in New York City, the COVID-19 pandemic was still raging, Russia hadn’t yet launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Israel and Hamas weren’t at war. On that day in late 2021, the quartet’s musicians, who have Israeli roots, celebrated the height of Romanticism with Brahms, and 20th-century and contemporary music wth Shostakovich and English composer Stephen Johnson.

Beethoven

The Ariel Quartet returns on November 16 with music of Beethoven. The program, titled “Oh, Mankind!,” includes Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major Op. 18 No. 6; curated selections from the first five quartets of that opus known collectively as the Early Quartets; and an illustrated talk by the eminent musicologist and Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford (who is also a familiar face to Aspect Chamber Music audiences).

As for violinist Philippe Quint, the last time he performed for an Aspect audience was in April 2022 with his “Chaplin’s Smile project – arrangements for piano and violin of the songs Charlie Chaplin wrote for his films. On December 6, 2023 the Russian-born Quint returns with very different music, and in august company: cellist Sergey Antonov, also Russian-born, and pianist Marc-André Hamelin. The program, titled “Flowers in the Concrete,” features 20th-century music by two of Russia’s greatest modern composers: Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 94bis, and his “Sarcasms,” Op. 17 for solo piano; and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67.

So much has happened in the relatively short time since these performers’ last Aspect appearances. Artists from Russia have been shunned, their concerts canceled. More recently, not only Israelis and Palestinians but Jews and Arabs around the world find themselves so at odds they seem to perceive different realities, while latent antisemitism is emerging around the world.

If there’s one thing that unites us, it’s music. And if anyone’s music can draw in and represent all humankind, it’s Beethoven’s.

Quartets à la Carte

I asked Jan Grüning, the Ariel Quartet’s violist, about the unusual choice to perform one full String Quartet after selections from the others. “We wanted to find a way to bring Beethoven’s personality closer to our audience,” he told me, “bringing him to life not only through our playing of his works but combining it with the composer’s very own words.” Hence the program will “lead the audience from the days of his earliest published works in 1783 to the year after the op. 18 quartets were published, 1802.”

Ariel Quartet

To put the music in context, excerpts from Beethoven’s letters “will serve as windows into his emotional landscape, as a youth, as a devoted friend, in times of hardship and in love – intersected with carefully selected movements from the quartets op. 18 Nos. 1-5 meant to musically reflect upon some of these aspects and character traits.”

As for the No. 6, Grüning described it as “the most complex of the set” – longer than the others, and with “a deeply emotional second movement, and a third movement which is rhythmically one of the more tricky movements for the genre to date. Significantly, its final movement bears a title: ‘La Malinconia.’

“The movement appears to set to music a medical term used at Beethoven’s time to describe what we would refer to as ‘manic depression’ today,” Grüning explained, “with alternating episodes of exalting joy and deep sorrow.” It “features a slow introduction with subsequently alternating sections of two opposing tempi, Adagio and Allegretto – formal deviations” that anticipate the composer’s later works.

‘Better Than Can Be Played’

Though the Ariel Quartet performs Beethoven’s Quartets often and has done the Beethoven cycle a number of times, they continue to make discoveries about the music. They also regularly perform Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets, Grüning told me, and “Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets are formally and stylistically much closer to Mozart’s and Haydn’s works than [Beethoven’s own] middle or late quartets, showing the compositional lineage from which Beethoven emerged.”

But the Op. 18 quartets are nonetheless “typically Beethovenian.” Grüning pointed out “the treatment of motivic development, frequent use of sforzandi and subito dynamics as well as harmonic language” and added, “These works belong to our favorite category of compositions which Arthur Schnabel famously dubbed ‘better than can be played,’ and the joy of rediscovering these elements and finding new ways of emphasizing the phrasing and compositional language never ends – sort of like visiting an old friend, finding comfort in what you know about them while discovering new aspects of their character.”

Tickets for “Oh, Mankind” on November 16, 2023 are available online.

Friends, Russians, Countrymen

For Philippe Quint, Russian music is an old friend. “Growing up in the Soviet Union, my musical journey began with Russian music that holds a very special place in my heart and in my repertoire,” he told me. “I remember vividly attending [Tchaikovsky’s] Eugene Onegin opera production in Leningrad [today’s Saint Petersburg] when I was about five years old.” Growing up he discovered other iconic Russian composers, like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, whose music, he has found, like Tchaikovsky’s “deeply resonates with listeners, [drawing on both] folk and classical traditions.”

Philippe Quint
Philippe Quint (photo credit: John Gress)

Quint’s affinity with this music is personal too: he pointed to “the melancholic strains of Russian music that in many ways are a mirror to the Russian people’s enduring resilience in the face of many years of adversity and oppression coming from every end. At the same time there is always a moment of great beauty, even in the most profound times of sorrow.

“Perceptions of Russian music vary, of course,” he added, “and with years, my interpretive prowess changes as well, as I have more opportunities to search for a deeper meaning within the boundaries of those ethnically rich music scores.”

Narrowing in on the upcoming program, Quint said that Prokofiev’s music was quite important in his own musical upbringing. Prokofiev composed his Violin Sonata No. 2 as he was sheltering from WWII, so I asked Quint if the music reflects those circumstances. He pointed out that Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor references the events of the war more directly – “This is vividly portrayed in every note” – and that the Sonata No. 2, which he is performing with Marc-André Hamelin, “exudes a distinctly different character.

“The first movement opens with a soulful melody which Prokofiev sustains throughout the movement, with only a short hint of [the] intensity that we encounter in the second and last movements. It then transitions into the galloping scherzo of the second movement. The third movement, perhaps with some influence from his time in Paris, skillfully incorporates jazz elements in the middle of its ghostly beginning and end.

“The final movement pays homage to the Soviet military might, celebrating unity with a triumphant and almost cacophonous and perhaps sarcastic conclusion.

“Violinistically speaking it’s very cleverly rearranged from the [original] flute version (with the help of the one and only ‘King’ David Oistrakh),” he added. “It always gives me a great joy to have an opportunity to perform this wonderful sonata.”

The Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 was composed in the same period, and the two composers are frequently compared. But Quint told me that “Shostakovich’s path and style as a composer were radically different from Prokofiev’s. Shostakovich, who courageously remained in the Soviet Union throughout the Stalinist era and World War II, endured the repercussions of harsh communist treatment.

Shostakovich

“He never shied away from employing abrasive, dissonant chords to convey coded messages expressing his disapproval of the system through his music. His second Piano Trio stands as a testament to that era, specifically focusing on the atrocities committed against the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe and Russia in particular.”

Quint explained further: “With a somber memorial to the victims of the regime in the third movement, Shostakovich incorporates a Jewish folk melody to commence the fourth movement, which swiftly evolves into something that can only be described as a cry of pain and torture. For me, the images that come forth from these music pages are very real and rather horrifying. This is why Irina Knaster, the founder of the Aspect Chamber Music series, and I decided to name this program ‘Flowers in the Concrete.'” Knaster will also be the evening’s lecturer.

I asked if Quint had any thoughts on these flowers, and this concrete, in the context of the Ukraine conflict. His answer went beyond that: “The Russia-Ukraine war and the recent developments in the Middle East are absolutely devastating,” he said. “As we perform this…music composed nearly a century ago, it is evident that these works deeply resonate with the somber truths of our society today.

“But as Leonard Bernstein once wrote: ‘This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.’

Tickets for “Flowers in the Concrete” on December 6, 2023 are available online.

For the full Aspect Chamber Music 2023-2024 season, including the November 16 “Oh, Mankind!” Beethoven concert featuring the Ariel Quartet, visit the website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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