Avalon Quartet wraps Beethoven cycle with deep and exhilarating performances

Mon Jun 04, 2012 at 10:20 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Avalon String Quartet concluded its Beethoven series Sunday at the Art Institute.

It was one of those ineffably beautiful summer afternoons in Chicago on Sunday, yet a sizable contingent packed Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute for the final program of the Avalon String Quartet’s Beethoven series. The project, which began last October, concluded with Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky”quartets, wrapping the ensemble’s complete cycle.

Previous installments in the series mixed Beethoven quartets from different periods, but Sunday’s lineup of Op. 59, the integral trio of works Beethoven wrote for the music-loving Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, makes sense as the final statement. It is in these three middle-period works — written quickly by Beethoven’s usual laborious standard — that the composer nudged the string quartet into an entirely new level of expressive depth and complexity, both in his own music and for the genre at large.

The Avalon String Quartet is a cohesive ensemble, yet with each member possessing distinctive qualities: first violinist Blaise Magniere’s sweet, refined tone and seamless articulation, Marie Wang’s pure timbre, violist Anthony Devroye’s elegant musicianship and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee’s fluid, beautfully burnished playing (especially as spotlighted in the F major quartet).

Ensemble in residence at Northern Illinois University since 2007, the Avalon Quartet has always been a highly polished ensemble, playing with gleam, fine transparency and skillful balancing (though second violinist Wang is a bit over-reticent and needs to play out more to better match her male colleagues).

Yet, as demonstrated by Sunday’s compelling final program, in their journey through these demanding works, the Avalon members have clearly imbibed the scale and challenges of Beethoven oeuvre, playing not just with polish and fluency, but with greater intensity and emotional punch.

The tense angular opening Allegro of the Quartet in E minor, was put across with corporate thrust and forceful urgency, qualities that characterized the playing all afternoon.  Technically, the playing and intonation were nearly faultless, but it was the guts and vigor of the playing that proved consistently impressive, as with the outer movements of the Quartet in C major, with the tearaway coda thrown off with an exhilarating speed and accuracy that was edge-of-the-seat thrilling.

The only quibble is that the lighter moments could have smiled a bit more. Beethoven’s humor is less apparent in Op. 59 than in his other works, but in sections like the bumptious trio of the C major quartet’s Menuetto and the playful Allegretto of the F major quartet, the playing felt a bit literal and would have benefited from a lighter, quirkier touch.

Otherwise, the Avalon Quartet members showed a deep understanding and sympathy for Beethoven’s envelope-pushing style and expressive depth. The vast Adagio of the F major quartet elicited concentrated playing that was sustained with the greatest skill, as was the aristocratic melancholy of the slow movement of the E minor quartet.

This Beethoven series has also offered brief lectures and slides of paintings in the Art Institute collection to complement the musical performances. Yet Sunday, the opening presentation proved something of a misfire. Apart from the Russian connection, lecturer Kathleen Burnett’s rushed and halting delivery didn’t make clear what were the qualities of Kandinsky’s art that related to the Razumovsky quartets. Also, some of the pre-concert stuff—bringing out the Avalon musicians for a round of applause and presenting them with boxes of chocolate, and Burnett including a large photo of her baby along with the Kandinsky slides—came across as irrelevant at best. And, while the concerts are free for Art Institute members, the process for picking up tickets and admission for nonmembers is a disaster and needs to be brought up to the same professional standards as the performances.

Logistical issues apart, this was a terrific afternoon of music-making by the gifted Avalon String Quartet and the news that the ensemble will be back at the Art Institute’s acoustically superb Fullerton Hall next season is a cause for celebration.

Posted in Performances

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