The Ariel Quartet:Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

The Ariel Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 18, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

When I first started writing music reviews for the Portland Press Herald years ago, I felt like Diogenes and his lantern, looking for an honest man. My search was for the quintessential, live, Brahms performance. Like Diogenes, I never found what I was looking for, although several came close.

My hopes rose when I heard the Ariel Quartet, brought to Hannaford Hall on Wednesday night by Portland Ovations. The monumental Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34, was the final work on a program that began with one of the most delightful readings of the Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (K.493) that I have heard anywhere.

The performance was as highly polished and full of intricate relief as a piece of Georgian silver. What can easily become a concerto was held in check by Navah Perlman, whose playing made the piano into one more voice in the quartet, although a lively one.

Sometimes one could not tell where the piano ended and the cello—or the viola, or the violin— began. A true conversation among equals, although inevitably, in the finale, the piano became more equal than others.

The reading was perfectly paced, from beginning to end, and somehow or other, the string players were able to achieve a degree of crisp articulation that matched that of the piano.

It seemed impossible to better that accomplishment, but the Ariel did just that in the Bartok Quartet No.1, as great a masterpiece in its own right as the Mozart. You could cut the concentration with a knife, and the dedication was of the kind that Bartok deserves but seldom gets in even the most prestigious recordings. (I bought the Ariel recording at intermission, something I very seldom do.)

From the opening exchange between the first and second violins, it was apparent that something special was happening, with the microtones producing a complex cloud of overtones. What followed was a taste of Bartok’s nocturnal world (frog fugue, mist over the lake, sighing reeds) and some of his best references to folk dances that never were. He brings forth from four instruments sonorities never heard before, without violating their musical nature.

This is the kind of music one can listen to a hundred times and always hear something new…and enchanting.

What about the Brahms? God knows, and she isn’t telling. Let’s just say that after what had gone before, it was a disappointment. Someone was ill, the quartet had used all its energy in the tirst two works, or maybe they just don’t like Brahms. (There are people like that, hard as it is to imagine.)

As a pianist, I have a theory. After intermission, Perlman played a very tentative Schumann Arabesque (Op. 18). Sometimes, when one piece goes wrong, so does everything else, and it’s advisable to go back to scales for the rest of the evening. It could happen to professionals too, I suppose, but they don’t have the luxury of quitting.

The other work on the Ariel Bartok recording is the Brahms String Quartet No. 2, so we’ll see.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.