Aizuri Quartet shines brightly in music of the night

May 6, 2023 at 12:46 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Aizuri Quartet performed Friday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Shervin Lainez

The Aizuri Quartet made their Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Longy’s Pickman Hall. Their program, heard digitally Friday night (and streaming until next Thursday), charts a chronological and psychological journey through the night.

The evening’s biggest offering was Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4. Completed in 1928, this knotty, five-movement work remains astonishingly potent: dense, violent, tough, incredibly virtuosic. Nevertheless, the Aizuri’s performance painted it with a surprising degree of warmth and lyricism.

This approach proved unexpectedly jarring in the opening movement, whose aggressive character felt a mite restrained. Yet the ensemble’s taut performance brought out an array of colors that in other hands sometimes fall victim to the music’s acerbity: glissando figurations were plush, as was the whole of the Allegro’s development.

A similar richness was evident in the subsequent movements, though each were driven as well in familiar style. The pair of scherzos were texturally lucid, the Prestissimo buzzing furiously and the Allegretto pizzicato dancing with commendable elegance.

Conversely, the foursome balanced savage attacks with breathtaking control in their characterful, structurally cogent account of the finale. Meanwhile, the central Non troppo lento emerged hauntingly, highlighted by Karen Ouzounian’s noble cello solos and Emma Frucht’s shimmering violin lines.

After the grittiness of the Bartók came Tanya Tagaq’s equally forceful Sivunittinni. Written in 2015 for the Kronos Quartet, the score owes a heavy debt to the throat-singing tradition of the composer’s Inuk culture. Just ten minutes long, its otherworldly sonic landscape draws almost entirely on extended techniques.

How the piece tied into the concert’s nocturnal theme is an open question. Still, the Aizuri’s performance of it was tightly focused, always leaning heavily into the music’s distinctive rhythmic profile.

Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet (Op. 76, no. 4) served a clearer programmatic function, resolving all the night’s strands. Following on the intensity of both the Bartók and Tagaq offerings, its lyrical disposition certainly cleared the air.

The piece also served to let the Aizuris demonstrate just how impressive an ensemble they are in the standard canon. The opening Allegro con spirito brimmed with character and songfulness, the exchanges between parts in its development unfolding with spirit and energy.

Similarly on-point dialogues between violinist Miho Saegusa and Ouzounian marked the beautifully searching Adagio. After this, the Minuet tripped jauntily.

In the finale, the group mined the movement’s stylistic transitions (from sweetly bucolic to wildly extroverted) with aplomb. In their hands, the personality of Haydn’s writing in this score emerged mightily.

Leading off the night was another gem: cellist Ouzounian’s arrangement of Clara Schumann’s song, “Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen.” Flowing and idiomatically voiced, it’s a wonderful adaptation. The Aizuri’s shapely and impassioned reading proved both an apt opener for their program and an excellent introduction to this most impressive of chamber ensembles.

The program is available to stream through May 11.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment