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Passionate Aeolus on Music Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Aug 6th, 2017

From left: Nicholas Tavani, Geoffrey Burleson, Rachel Shapiro, Gregory Luce, Alan Richardson

The Aeolus Quartet performed their debut performance at Music Mountain this past Sunday afternoon on the most perfect summer day of the season. They opened with a late Haydn piece, String Quartet in F major, Op. 74 no 2, one of six quartets (1793) commissioned for a London performance the following year; noted for its experimental juxtaposition of keys a third apart, it blends Romantic inflections within classical structured form.

Violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro dominated the performance with tightly woven rhythms and Romantic spontaneity in the opening Allegro spirituoso and Andante grazioso which expressed the questing spirit of the Protestant Reformation as it turned toward a deep and solemn appreciation for the gift of life. This sentiment moved toward more extroverted, secular social festivity in the Menuetto Allegro where violist Gregory Luce was able to more forcefully shine. In the Presto Finale where the opening spiritual theme arrived in recapitulated intensity, the music appeared to celebrate the religious and secular reign of King George III. Cellist Alan Richardson ably joined the excitement of the other three players as they melded in spirited social celebration.

Aeolus’ performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) offered the palpable treat of the afternoon. Written at the age of eighteen, this quartet remains perhaps the most passionate quartet in the classical repertoire. Re-employing motifs from an early lied written at fifteen that highlighted the refrain “Is love possible?” Mendelssohn appropriated and transformed formal elements of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, into his own deeply personal idiom.

The opening Adagio-Allegro painted the emotional infatuation of a beloved progressing to sexual affirmation and climax, followed by a luxurious post-coital Adagio of tender touching. The following Intermezzo Allegretto, sometimes referred to as “elfin” in texture, appears to test the relationship in a public setting; passing this test, the relationship turned to passionate and contented public celebration in a joyous Presto. Mendelssohn’s turmoil and ecstasy was apparently directed toward Betty Pistor, a choir member, yet we have no further information about this brief infatuation or romance.

Tavani and Shapiro caught the texture of dialectical intimacy erupting into social triumph. Both the opening questing theme and advanced sexual frisson were a quite remarkable announcement of a new Romantic giant. (This quartet was Mendelssohn’s first published quartet.) The audience at august Gordon Hall was ecstatic, hypnotized, demanding a second bow, rising to their feet. While I had sensed slight nervous tension in the players at the opening of the performance, it was clear that they were glowing, relaxed, bathing in that extraordinary aura of something special well-achieved.

After a twelve minute intermission we were summoned by the old bell for more romance. César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) might be the most popular number ever performed at Music Mountain. This was its 37th appearance on the program. Pianist Geoffrey Burleson, Hunter College piano teacher and pianist for a five-cd recording set of Saint-Saëns’ complete piano works for Naxos, offered a lively behind-the-curtain introduction to the passion of the numerous triple-fortes in the score, which were directed to a mutual pupil of Franck and Saint-Saëns. Quite Frankly, Franck’s piece nearly borders on the bombastic, yet it does not cross that line, and it remains a marvelous show piece where the piano intersected with varied, original sounds from strings in different combinations with adept arpeggio runs by Burleson. The impressive novelty of Franck’s unorthodox arrangement overcomes any doubts about emotional excess.

All three of the pieces performed featured the juxtaposition of keys a third apart in mediant relationships, as well as dramatizing committed emotional intensity. There was real pleasure in hearing the passionate energy of these young performers, who have two cds available on the Longhorn/Naxos label, at Music Mountain.