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Ariel String Quartet and Jan Swafford at Aspect Chamber Music concert, 16 November 2023. Photo credit: Oren Hope
The Ariel Quartet with (2nd from R) Jan Swafford, Aspect Chamber Music Series, NYC, 16 November 2023. Photo credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review (NYC): The Ariel String Quartet Offers a Lesson in Beethoven

One reason I’ve kept coming to the Aspect Chamber Music concerts for the past four years is the way the illustrated talks put the music in artistic and social context. This brings the music to life beyond what the superb performances alone can do. On November 16, Beethoven and Brahms biographer Jan Swafford, last heard on the Aspect stage talking about Schumann and Brahms, returned to expand and deepen our knowledge of Beethoven and his music with the Ariel Quartet, this time with music from Beethoven’s Op. 18 (“Early”) String Quartets, including the complete No. 6 in B flat. As is usual at Aspect events, the concert shed unaccustomed light.

Space, Time, and Beethoven

Last weekend I was fortunate to hear the Cassatt String Quartet play Op. 18 No. 1. Last night the Ariel Quartet gave us the very beginning of the same work by way of introduction to this historic set of six String Quartets. Though No. 1 was not actually the first composed, the excerpt evoked the classic style of Haydn and Mozart that Beethoven was to take in startling new directions. The first half of the concert included longer selections from Op. 18 as well, including an ineffably sweet performance of part of the second (slow) movement of No. 2.

The complete second movement of No. 1 followed. Reportedly inspired by the big death scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it was in the Ariel’s hands deeply grounded and at the same time ethereal. The performance revealed especially the musicians’ exquisite spatial consciousness, exemplified by long silences taut with tension – truly, in Swafford’s words, “a drama told in tone.”

The third movement of No. 5 showed the manifold skills of all four musicians. The variations unfolded with variegated vigor; the fourth variation, focused on harmony, was absolutely gorgeous. The first movement of No. 4 leapt from the strings, juggling with beautiful balance Mozartian songfulness, spaciousness, and flares of passion – high drama indeed.

Music and Melancholy

Beethoven’s development of – indeed veritable invention of – instrumental music as narrative emerged in full bloom in the Ariel’s performance of the complete Op. 18 No. 6. In the first movement the hints of melancholy and even of losing control came through clearly, especially since Swafford and the musicians had pointed them out with excerpts beforehand. The musicians made great use of time and well-crafted phrasing in the second movement, particularly in the development of the haunting second theme where dynamic and dolorous colors dominated.

The disconcerting syncopations in the Scherzo and its own strange second theme, with the first violin twirling over the odd beat, came through with grace and power. The unique “Melancolia” movement followed, and the musicians delivered the full tragic richness of its harmonies and its wrenching accents alike. In the animated Finale, the same melancholy fights its way in through the cracks, but ultimately has to surrender.

For information and tickets for the next Aspect concert on December 6 (“Flowers in the Concrete”), featuring violinist Philippe Quint, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, and cellist Sergey Antonov playing music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, see our preview, and get tickets at the Aspect website, where schedule and tickets for the rest of the season are also available.

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 our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to 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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