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Arianna String Quartet atop Music Mountain

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 1st, 2019

From left: John McGrosso, Julia Sakharova, Kurt Baldwin, Richard Young, Joanna Mendoza

At the University of Missouri, St Louis, the Arianna String Quartet has in residence, playing and teaching since 2000. They have toured this country and many countries abroad. As a quartet they possess a sterling reputation for bright sound with remarkable unity and those characteristics were on display this past Sunday at Music Mountain in Falls Village. They have recently released their recordings of Beethoven’s middle quartets on ASQ and they are off to a festival in Mexico next week.

They opened with Hugo Wolf’s masterpiece, Italian Serenade, from 1887, composed two years after Wolfe had received a terrible eye injury while playing with a child’s toy. Opening with a short, delightful, and original work that has irony, unexpected humor, and a lightness almost levitating, turns out to be welcoming way to begin a concert by a composer who had produced his first masterpiece. Originally conceived as a three-part work, it remained a one movement work, a little over seven minutes in duration. Free of Romantic sentimentality, it also lacks the trenchant bleak wit popular of its day, and instead sails with melodic lilt along the sunny seaside of Italy. The Quartet played this piece with the buoyant air the composition requires. Julia Sakharova on second violin delivered a delicious sound.

On a much more sober note, they tackled Franz Schubert’s great String Quartet in D minor No. 14, Op. 810, nicknamed “Death and the Maiden” from 1824. While they played impressively with exalted unity that featured an unusually robust sound, they did not plunge into the melancholy heart of this tragic work. Dancing ecstatically on the surface, they did not delve into the demonic nightmare that the piece ultimately demands. Their playing, however, remained remarkably impressive and well- balanced. Joanna Mendoza on viola was especially important in producing their rounded sound, while first violinist John McGrosso was outstanding in the concluding Presto, which provided the sprightly excitement of a galloping fox hunt rather than the tarantella Dance of Death, or the hoofbeat of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. They never arrived at the frenzied terror which might trouble the sunny afternoon sea of white hair before them.

Felix Mendelssohn’s late Viola Quintet in B-flat major, Op. 87, from 1845 is not often played, this being but the third time it has been played at Music Mountain. This string quartet is usually judged to be inferior to Mendelssohn’s earlier String Quartet in A, Op.18 (1826, revised 1832). Guest violist Richard Young appeared to augment the ensemble and goose up the work to a large ensemble sound. The opening Allegro creates a pleasant melodic line with energy, yet the real excitement remains the following Adagio where cellist Kurt Baldwin held center court as an axial pole. While McGrosso’s violin eloquently bore the burden of the melancholy Adagio, I thought the violin line to be underwritten. Mendelssohn was so upset with the concluding, quite lively Allegro, that he never allowed the piece to be published.

Young’s viola mightily contributed to the  larger ensemble sound, yet I wondered why the two-viola role (which were not always designed to reinforce each other) were not made more central to the work, although they managed to utter some usual combo of aesthetic sounds. This was, after all, Mendelssohn where the melodic line was marvelous, and it was a treat to hear a work by Mendelssohn that is rarely performed. This was a good concert and I look forward to hearing a different program at the hands of the Arianna String Quartet in the future. The acoustics at Music Mountain remain superb and the  genial intimacy of atmosphere is treasured by all attendees.

Next Sunday Music Mountain at 3 pm will feature The American String Quartet with guest clarinetist Oskar Espina-Ruiz in a program of SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet #7 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 108 (1960); BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115 (1891); BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59 #3 (1806).