Aizuri Quartet’s insightful Beethoven caps impressive Winter Chamber Festival debut

Sat Jan 18, 2020 at 3:21 pm

By John von Rhein

New York’s Aizuri Quartet in performance Friday night at Northwestern University’s Winter Chamber Festival in Evanston. Photo: Ari Sloss

Ludwig van Beethoven doesn’t turn 250 until December, but that hasn’t prevented seemingly anyone and everyone in classical music from celebrating early. This year we’re in for more than the usual volume of Beethovenian programming and brow-knitting over Beethoven’s genius and meaning. We may well discover unexpected ways in which these familiar masterpieces link Beethoven’s tempestuous sensibility to our troubled times. In any case, we are in for quite a ride – providing we don’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the flood tide.

Northwestern University’s 24th Winter Chamber Music Festival is doing its bit for the Beethoven sestercentennial, with more than half of its six January programs devoted to works by the German master. The third of these concerts, heard on a blizzardy Friday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, brought the festival debut of the Aizuri Quartet. This young, all-female group devoted the second portion of its enterprising program to Beethoven’s great String Quartet No. 14.

This is the most strikingly radical of the late string quartets, and the Aizuri Quartet juxtaposed it with music of Hildegard von Bingen, Carlo Gesualdo, Franz Joseph Haydn and Conlon Nancarrow — composers who, in their individual ways, also worked in spiritual or geographical isolation, as cellist Karen Ouzounian pointed out in her introductory remarks. The Aizuris effectively refracted the other scores through Beethoven’s towering masterpiece — even the scores that predated it.

The Aizuri players proved themselves worthy of the formidable task they set for themselves. This is one of the most impressive young string quartets this listener has encountered in years. Formed in 2012, the ensemble of American, Canadian and Japanese musicians takes its name from aizuri-e, a style of Japanese woodblock printing known for its vibrancy and intricate detail — qualities that characterized their playing. Warmth of tone, precision of intonation and attack, surety of balance and blend, vivacity of manner — these virtues informed interpretations that were deeply considered but never felt cut-and-dried. The blue flame of spontaneity burned brightly throughout.

Gustav Mahler famously said he sought to create entire worlds with his symphonies; as much could be said of the motive behind Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. Seven movements played without pause, this work of infinite expressive variety influenced so much of what was to follow in music, beyond being one of the great gifts to string quartets for more than 190 years and counting.

Veteran string groups may have lived with this music longer and probed its recesses with mellower insights, but the Aizuris were able to hold the music’s inner workings — not merely its teeming surface — up to the light of a unified interpretative vision. Natural rubato and deftly sustained pianissimos built the opening slow fugue to an intense climax. The ensuing Allegro was light and clear before the recitative-like movement that leads into the great set of variations. Someone once wrote that this music is like something never before heard; the Aizuris made it feel that way, taking you deeply into the wonders of its developmental logic.

The Scherzo that followed was nicely pointed in rhythm, although at times the group’s pristine tonal finish was slightly marred by the buzzy rasps of the cellist’s brusque attacks. That said, the headlong sweep of the Allegro finale put a winning capstone on everything that had come before.

The Beethoven quartets as we know them would have been much the poorer, if not impossible, without the model of Haydn’s 68 creations in that form. Friday’s program included one of the most delicious of his mature quartets, the B Minor, Op. 64, No. 2. Violinists Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Ouzounian responded urgently to those Haydnesque qualities — notably wit and charm — that put smiles on listeners’ faces whenever they delve into this repertoire. The heart of the Aizuris’ interpretation, like the heart of their Beethoven, was the variations movement: These finely synchronized colleagues allowed the music to flow and breathe with unaffected serenity.

The Aizuris accentuated the “modernity” of each piece played Friday and the original sensibility of each composer, regardless of era, in a program sequence that began with “Columba aspexit” by the 12th Century abbess and musical visionary Hildegard, two madrigals by the Italian Renaissance iconoclast Gesualdo (all arranged by violinist Alex Fortes) and the Third String Quartet by the 20th Century American experimentalist Nancarrow.

The austerity of Hildegard’s chant-based polyphony made a useful pairing with the complex, overlapping part-writing of the somber Gesualdo pieces, their passing dissonances sounding even more piquant in their rendering for string quartet.

The intertwined canons of Nancarrow’s 1987 quartet owe much to the methodology of his ingenious player piano pieces. (Ouzounian called Nancarrow’s quartet an essay in “organized chaos.”) Sometimes requiring the musicians to share a common pulse and materials but play them at different tempos, this tightly compressed music demands fierce virtuosity from each player, as well as from the group as a whole. The Aizuris dispatched it brilliantly, sustaining a wonderfully ethereal haze of plucked harmonics at the threshold of audibility in the slow central canon.

Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival continues with the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The festival runs through Jan. 26.

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