The Spanish work fiar
means “to trust”. Trusting
your partners is vital among the members of a chamber ensemble. That’s
why the Afiara String quartet took this word as the base of their
name when they were formed in 2006. The members of the quartet are
all Canadian, but their current center of performing gravity is San
Francisco. At the end of this disc they are joined by their mentors,
the veteran members of the Alexander Quartet, for an electrifying
performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet
The A Minor Quartet
may be a juvenile composition, but in Mendelssohn’s
case juvenile should never be overlooked. Despite the smaller opus
number, the quartet was actually composed following
and the Midsummer Overture
. Written soon after Beethoven’s
death, it is so full of allusions to Beethoven’s late string
quartets, as if it was created in a conscious homage. Some places
sound practically like quotations though without the bold strokes
and the irreverent innovation of late Beethoven. Regardless of this,
it’s a very impressive work.
The opening Allegro vivace
is troubled: verging on desperate.
The slow movement contains a plaintive fugue with episodes of greater
agitation. This is followed by a sad minuet with traits of a folk-song.
Its Trio has the weightless, elfin qualities that we associate with
Mendelssohn’s scherzos, busy and flickering. The finale is restless
and tempestuous, with heavyweight seriousness, not yet typical of
Mendelssohn at this age.
The performance is coherent and harmonious, with fine nuances, perfectly
blended ensemble and excellent shading. The singing intonations and
dramatic expressivity are without excessive pressure. Their drama
sounds natural and intimate, never turning into banal thrashing around.
They maintain the tension in slower parts, and do not become muddy
in crowded moments. The tempi are natural and expressive and the performance
is involved and involving.
, usually counted as Schubert’s Quartet No.12,
is actually a lonely first movement, which Schubert wrote when he
was 23 and left unfinished. This torso can stand on its own, and the
distinct musical parallel to the Unfinished Symphony
The dramatic, Erlkönig
-like music, nervous and lyrical
in turns, has all the hallmarks of Schubert’s last creative
period. Turbulent episodes give place to poignantly tender ones. Everything
is crispy and tight, with strong momentum, and the music flies by
like an arrow.
If anything goes to prove the teenage Mendelssohn as a genius it’s
. The first movement is an explosively happy Allegro,
overflowing with young energy and bursting with enthusiasm. The slow
movement is subdued and melancholic; the tone is misty and the feeling
is uneasy. The fantastic, impossible Scherzo is in perpetual movement:
this is the mother of all “Mendelssohnian” scherzos, alive
and kicking. The finale returns to the happy enthusiasm of the opening
movement. It has the atmosphere of a country festival, with merry
fiddles and colorful pairs spinning in a joyous dance.
It is not every two ensembles that can be superimposed without the
result becoming congealed and heavy. In this case the purity and lightness
of touch, so characteristic of the Alexander Quartet, mean that when
they join the Afiara the music stays light and lean. All voices are
heard in natural balance and the colors blend well. The Scherzo has
the necessary dryness; the performers emphasize the beat, which occasionally
gives the music a polka flavor. They drive through the finale with
The recording is transparently clear but a bit remote, from the side.
This detaches the listener from the music, but on the other hand has
created a feeling of purity. Overall, I greatly enjoyed the disc,
which puts together three beautiful works in excellent interpretations.
I understand that this is the Afiara’s debut recording. A debut
Masterwork Index: Schubert