Review: Avalon Quartet at Merit 2/10/11

Celebrating their 16th year together, the Avalon String Quartet played a concert of Viennese music at the Merit School of Music. The concert began with Webern's Langsamer Satz (1905), one of his Late-Romantic, pre-atonal pieces. The Avalon graciously unfurled the concupiscent quartet, moving with one mind through the push and pull of passion. The 9-minute work by Schoenberg's most popular student describes a hike in the Alps with the composer's future wife (and cousin); it opened the concert with a a gentle and prolonged bang, like glowing ember that burned hotter and hotter until finally bursting into flames. 
The quartet then took that flame and abstracted it in Berg's Lyric Suite (1925). Though the Second Viennese School grew out of late-Romanticism, and though Berg was the maintained the most Romantic lyricism in his works, the piece can verge on the neo-classical--especially following the Webern. In their interpretation, the Avalon kept the fire alive, maintaining a wide range of expression. The work describes a forbidden passion between the composer and his lover, details of which are woven into the fabric of the music. In the final movement of the piece, the quartet was joined by mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley singing a poem by Baudelaire. Her singing truly embodied the gravitas and pathos caused by frustrated passion.

After a brief and welcome intermission--a few moments to digest the weight and breadth of the Berg--the quartet returned to the stage for some Schubert: first Death and the Maiden, arranged for string quartet, and then the Death and the Maiden Quartet, he second movement based on the song's melody. The Avalon managed to make a new and individual interpretation of this oft-performed work.

The Avalon Quartet came together in 1995 at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and have been together ever since. Their musicianship and rhythmic precision evinces the amount of time they have played together. And yet, in the days since the concert, I have changed my mind about the quartet several times. Suffice it to say, they are a highly-trained, professional quartet, but there is something that keeps me from falling for them. They are as tight rhythmically as one can imagine, but there sometimes appears a disconnect in their tone: the first violin seems to occupy a lighter, more ethereal world than the others, standing apart even in more chorale-like sections. Perhaps this is a matter of taste. The first violinist has a unique tone that seems to betray his French origins. But "individual interpretation" doesn't cover playing out of tune, which seemed to happen more than I thought necessary. 

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