As nicely played as the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky were, there was something distinctly anticlimactic about the Aviv Quartet’s programming choices. I would much rather have heard the Erwin Schulhoff close the evening—or at least heard it sandwiched between the Romantic selections.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
This past Saturday evening, the Concert Series at Wellesley College presented the Aviv String Quartet in concert at Houghton Chapel. The Aviv’s, who were founded in Israel over a decade ago, have trained and performed alongside some of the most famous musicians of the day, including Isaac Stern, Yefim Bronfman, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. A large and, on the whole, enthusiastic audience was on hand at Wellesley for their program of quartets by Schulhoff, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky.
The most interesting piece on the program was its opener: Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet no. 1. Schulhoff, who was born Prague in 1894 and died of tuberculosis in a German concentration camp in 1942, may not exactly be a household name, but the Aviv’s are among a growing group of musicians working to change that. His music recalls a number of his contemporaries (most notably in this Quartet, Bartòk and Debussy) though there’s nothing derivative about it: Schulhoff’s language is highly individual.
The present quartet was composed in 1924 and follows a rather curious formal design of three fast movements answered by a bleak, desolate finale. Schulhoff had a fine ear for instrumental effects and the Quartet’s four movements are full of passages of left-hand pizzicato, artificial harmonics, sul ponticello bowings, and the like. It was a pity, then, that the Houghton Chapel acoustic was so dry as to deaden the sound before it reached the back seats. Also unhelpful was the ventilation system that competed for attention with the first two-thirds of the Schulhoff; thankfully that distraction was resolved in the middle of the third movement.
These challenges notwithstanding, the Aviv’s made a strong case for this vivid, image-producing piece. On Saturday, they dispatched the short, bustling opening movement with great vigor. The moderately paced second movement featured fine viola and cello solos by Timur Yakubov and Aleksandr Khramouchin, respectively. A rustic, hearty, Slavic-infused third movement channeled the Bartòk of the Romanian Folk Dances and allowed for some of the most rollicking music-making of the evening. The finale, which could be read as an eerie foreshadowing of Schulhoff’s eventual demise, was positively haunting: shrill, dissonant chords that sounded like train whistles gave way to a ticking figure that wound down and dissolved into silence. The well-behaved audience allowed a moment of silence to transpire before responding with applause.
Following the Schulhoff, the Aviv’s turned to 19th-century, chamber music repertoire with a reading of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 6. This Quartet is late Mendelssohn—his last completed composition, in fact—dating from the turbulent summer of 1847 and written in the shadow the death of his favorite sister, Fanny. Accordingly, the work’s four movements are imbued with a tragic aspect that one does not always associate with Mendelssohn’s earlier output.
On Saturday I had the feeling that the dry acoustics of Houghton Chapel were sapping some of the immediacy from the Aviv’s playing, particularly in the outer movements. The Quartet was clearly caught up, physically, in the music—indeed, the unity of the ensemble was extraordinary throughout the piece—but that energy often failed to carry throughout the space.
The movements that fared best were the two that fell in the middle. Mendelssohn wrote an emotionally unstable Scherzo as the second movement and on Saturday the Aviv’s caught its shifting, moody character convincingly. The slow third movement, too, came across beautifully. Rarely does the key of A-flat major sound as melancholy as here, where Mendelssohn wrote one of his most heartfelt melodies. The Aviv’s captured the sadness and beauty of the music to fine effect, conveying a wide range of dynamic shadings and subtle changes of affect.
In the first and fourth movements, though, the music should be played with a fearsome energy (think Beethoven on steroids), and that overarching wildness was missing on Saturday. True, the resonance of the Chapel wasn’t ideal, but there was a start/stop quality to the Aviv’s phrasing in the finale, for instance, that likely would have deadened the music’s momentum even in a friendlier venue. Moments that should have an edge-of-the-seat quality, like the closing section of the first movement, still should have come across more vividly, even considering the performance space.
Still, the Aviv’s gave a strong and dramatic reading of the work, playing through a lighting failure in the middle of the first movement without batting a collective eye. Of particular note were first violinist Sergey Ostrovsky, who handled Mendelssohn’s virtuosic writing with ease, and, again, cellist Aleksandr Khramouchin, who provided a bass that made a solid foundation for his colleagues to build upon.
To close the evening, the Aviv’s presented Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no. 3 after intermission. With the exception of his first Quartet, Tchaikovsky’s contributions to the genre remain relatively little known, though there’s often much to admire in his writing for strings. The present work, his last quartet, dates from 1876, and, clocking in at nearly 40 minutes, is the most substantial of the three.
In this performance, it was again the two middle movements that fared best. The second movement Scherzo was played with great rustic character and a liveliness that had been absent since, well, the second movement of the Mendelssohn. The Aviv’s performance of the slow third movement caused me to leave the concert convinced that it is one of Tchaikovsky’s finest creations.
In this movement, a recurring, harmonic progression forms the foundation for a series of melodic ideas. Midway through the movement, a chorale figure appears and seems to suspend time, looking back as it does to ancient, Russian, liturgical music, while at the same time glancing forward half a century to Shostakovich. The Aviv’s were perfectly in tune with the drama of the music and its haunting mood, playing up the dissonance of the repeating progression to fine effect and conveying a strong sense of the movement’s architecture throughout.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel entirely the same when it came to the outer movements. The long first movement was marred by an aggressiveness in the ensemble’s playing that adversely effected tone quality and led to some apparent bow misplacements. It probably didn’t help that this is one of Tchaikovsky’s most long-winded movements, in which small, repetitive figures are developed ad nauseum. Still, a clearer sense of the music’s architecture would have helped make the experience of listening to it less a duty performed, more a rainbow to the soul.
The finale, which strongly recalls the closing movement of Beethoven’s last Rasumovsky Quartet, suffered from a similar confusion of structure, though it was played with high energy and a good deal of humor. There were some intonation issues that were difficult to overlook, though, to be fair, this was a very ambitious program and by this point in the concert, fatigue must have set in among the players. As in the earlier pieces, the Chapel’s dry acoustics didn’t help them very much: everything, good or bad, could be heard (even if it seemed to sound at a far distance).
As nicely played as the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky were, I left feeling that there was something distinctly anticlimactic about the Aviv’s programming choices. I would much rather have heard the Schulhoff close the evening—or at least heard it sandwiched between the Romantic selections—or perhaps it could have been paired with a quartet by Debussy, Ravel, or Bartòk. Hearing Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky back-to-back in this context proved too much of the same for my ears and, combined with the problematic acoustics of the performance space, made for a less than fully satisfying evening. At least we had the Schulhoff: that alone more than made up for any disappointments that followed.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.