Nov. 22 American String Quartet

The American String Quartet (photo: Peter Schaaf)

The American String Quartet (photo: Peter Schaaf)

American String Quartet, now in its 39th season, sounds as fresh as ever

Pianist Anton Nel joins the celebrated chamber ensemble in a stunning performance of Schumann’s ‘Piano Quintet’

By David Abrams

I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite from the three works on Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music concert featuring the American String Quartet (ASQ). But one thing I know for certain: This performance ranks among the top half-dozen or so live chamber performances I’ve ever attended.

The conservative program of works by Mozart, Brahms and Schumann, though not especially daring, was performed with all the technical mastery expected of a professional chamber ensemble. But ASQ took these works to the next level — combining precision of execution with complete spontaneity of phrasing. The result was a pervasive sense of joy and delight in the music-making process that was easy to hear and see on the players’ faces.

You only fall in love for the first time once. But on this occasion I fell in love all over again with each of the works performed. Not with the same intensity of the first time, perhaps, but a close second. And judging from the prolonged standing ovation and shouts of approval at the end of the program, I suspect other listeners experienced an epiphany as well.

ASQ is no stranger to the chamber music scene. Founded in 1974 at the Juilliard School, the quartet quickly gained attention by winning both the Coleman Prize and the Naumburg Award. Today ASQ continues to enjoy an international reputation, with a stream of tours on the horizon. And at 39 years in the business, there’s no sign of slowing down.

Things got off to an alert start with Mozart’s cheerful Quartet in C Major, K. 465, the composer’s last work in a brilliant set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Though nicknamed “Dissonant” due to the prominence of unexpected non-chordal chromatic tones in the lengthy opening introduction, this quartet is actually a sunny and effervescent work with shimmering melodic lines.

ASQ had performed this work countless times before and recorded it along with the composer’s other quartets. The players’ level of comfort was immediately apparent in the opening Allegro, whose intertwining lines connecting the four instruments came off with precision and ease of delivery. Mozart’s gentle lyricism in the hymn-like slow movement that followed was especially alluring, with the repeating four-note motif passing seamlessly from player to player.

The playful Menuetto leads to an angstful Trio, which ASQ played with suitable stürm und drang. The rapid 16th-note passages that pervade the final movement were delivered cleanly and with polish by the ensemble’s first violinist, Peter Winograd.

First-chair violinist Peter Winograd during the buoyant first movement Allegro of Mozart's Quartet in C Major (photo John Herr)

First-chair violinist Peter Winograd during the buoyant first movement Allegro of Mozart’s Quartet in C Major at the Nov. 22 SFCM concert (photo John Herr)

Winograd, who joined ASQ in 1990, is a solid first-chair player who possesses all the tools for the position. And he’s not difficult to spot onstage. The son of late cellist-conductor Arthur Winograd (a founding members of the Juilliard Quartet), Peter Winograd is a tall man who towers over the three other players. Audience members reading the program booklet may have understandably assumed that Winograd’s scholarship to the Juilliard School was for basketball.

Like many first-chair players, Winograd plays fearlessly and with great determination. His large and vibrant sound during the passionate slow movement of the Brahms B-flat Major Quartet, Op.67 reminded me of the bold bowing technique of Hilary Hahn — whose sound, like that of Winograd, engulfs the listener from start to finish. The Brahms Quartet also provided the listener an opportunity to savor the deep alto timbre of violist Daniel Avshalomov.

If there’s any doubt about how Brahms felt about the viola, the B-flat Major Quartet makes the composer’s intentions abundantly clear.

Violist Daniel Avshalomov "singing his aria" during the sensuous third movement of the Brahms Quartet in B-flat Major (photo: John Herr)

Violist Daniel Avshalomov “singing his aria” during the sensuous third movement of the Brahms Quartet in B-flat Major at the Nov. 22 SFCM concert (photo: John Herr)

This sumptuous quartet, the composer’s third and final composition in this genre, provides a prominent role for the violist. In the third movement Allegretto non troppo, which Brahms claimed was his favorite, the composer treats the viola as he would an operatic contralto — muting the two violins and cello while leaving the viola free to “sing” its aria with great nuance of feeling. And Avshalomov’s did not disappoint. The violist also spoke to  the audience prior to the performance of each work, demonstrating that he is as articulate and voluble a speaker as he is a performer. The final movement, a set of six variations on a folk-like tune, allowed each of the four players, in-turn, to shine.

Following intermission, pianist Anton Nel joined ASQ for the program closer, Schumann’s mighty Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major.

Nel, an accomplished performer and teacher perhaps best known for his interpretations of Beethoven, proved a worthy complement to the strings.  His delicacy of touch in the opening Allegro, coupled with sensitively placed rubatos, allowed Schumann’s wistful phrases to alternately breathe and sigh.  In the more forceful sections of the movement Nel showed sufficient steel in his fingers to keep stride with the four strings playing at full volume, particularly in the fugal coda at the end of the final movement.

Pianist Anton Nel waits for a cue in the Schumann Piano Quintet (photo: John Herr)

Pianist Anton Nel waits for a cue during the Schumann Piano Quintet at the Nov. 22 SFCM concert (photo: John Herr)

I especially enjoyed Nel’s cleanly spaced staccatos in the bouncy Scherzo movement, which sounded as if his fingers were bouncing off a trampoline.

The strings achieved a homogenous blend of tone with Nel in the opening movement, buoyed by a nicely shaped dialogue between Avshalomov and cellist Wolfram Koessel. In the final movement the players dug in deeply to to reach the emotional inner core of Schumann’s weighty writing. I was thrilled to hear proper execution of the pervasive dotted rhythms in the quintet’s second movement (In Modo d’una Marcia) on the part of all the players. (A rarity, to be sure.)

When the Schumann ended an overwhelmed SFCM audience stood up and cheered, showering the musicians with lengthy applause that stopped only when the five players once again took their seats for an encore: the sublime slow movement to Brahms’s F Minor Piano Quintet.

That made four pieces to fall in love with all over again.

Details Box:
Who: American String Quartet, with pianist Anton Nel
What: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: H.W. Smith Auditorium, 1130 Salt Springs Rd., Syracuse NY
When: Nov. 22, 2014
Next concert: “Romantic Strings,” Saturday Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: Regular $25; senior $15; full-time students free

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