Yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center in Carmel, we had an opportunity to hear the American String Quartet, one of the most celebrated ensembles in the world. The players — violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov, and cellist Wolfram Koessel — were at the top of their form and impressed us with their ability to breath new life into some very familiar masterpieces.
Well, not all of the works on the program were familiar masterpieces. How often do we hear three Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier arranged for string quartet? This certainly had to be a new experience for most members our audience, and, we have to say, even a new experience for those pianists in the audience who at one time in their life have probably struggled with the Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in B-flat Minor, BWV 867, one of the most popular in WTC, Bk. 1.
The principal struggle for pianists has always been the careful delineation of the various entry of voices in the fugues, especially in the codas, where the voices often overlap in staggered entrances. The preludes not only translated successfully from keyboard to string quartet, but the fugues emerged with a new clarity that was dazzling. Additionally the players wisely and stylistically avoided the overuse of staccato in the three Preludes — the so called “Glenn Gould” effect of perpetual detached notes. These players got it right!
The Brahms Quartet in B-flat Major received a solid and moving performance. Its somber viola solo against the other three muted instruments in the third movement gave Daniel Avshalomov an opportunity to demonstrate his gorgeous sound and elegant shaping of phrases. The second movement, Andante, projected a somber Brahmsian mood, and the final variation movement made a splendid effect.
Ultimately, it was the final performance of the afternoon, Beethoven’s great Quartet No. 14, in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, that stirred us and moved us the most. The opening movement, being a fugue, gave it a spiritual kinship with the Bach Fugues on the first half of the program, although Beethoven’s fugue is definitely more romantic and more personally painful. The fascinating fourth movement, Andante e molto cantabile, with its clever and fascinating variations kept us spellbound, while the exciting faster movements had a magical series of mercurial changes and surprises that tended to keep us slightly off balance and never knowing what was coming next.
This was an amazing performance full of power and conviction. What a way to end a program! I hope we will soon have a return engagement by these fabulous musicians.