Tod und Verklärung: The Aeolus Quartet Plays New York

Alice Tully Hall; Monday, May 4, 2015

BOYCE Alcyone (World Premiere)

SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for String Sextet

SCHUBERT String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”

We purchase and consume our music in the smallest of units, the “song.” What does it mean, then, to develop four of these “songs” together, or even to develop an entire concert built around the same theme?

The Aeolus Quartet presented three programmatic works this month under the theme of “Death and Transfiguration.” While the title itself (an homage to Richard Strauss) was perhaps a bit of a cliché, the three works together formed a well-balanced program; each of the three works had a strict (or loose) association with transformation.

The first piece retold the Greek myth of Alcyone, a commission by Douglas BoyceAlcyone‘s timbral effects captured the scratching and the swooping of the birds and the waves, a piece that was in constant motion from beginning to end.

Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. Alcyone’s husband, Ceyx is journeying when a thunderstorm at sea breaks  his ship into pieces; Morpheus, the god of Sleep, delivers the terrible news to the new widow. When morning breaks, Alcyone finds her husband Ceyx’s body on the shore. She throws herself into the waves, only to be transformed with her husband into kingfisher birds: (Kline translation, via UVA)

Though it was amazing that she could do so, she leapt onto [the tide]: she flew, and, beating the soft air on new-found wings, a sorrowing bird, she skimmed the surface of the waves. As she flew, her plaintive voice came from a slender beak, like someone grieving and full of sorrows. When she reached the mute and bloodless corpse, she clasped the dear limbs with her new wings and kissed the cold lips in vain with her hard beak.

The composer follows Alcyone’s journey through movement, as well; Boyce placed ten chairs upon the stage instead of the usual four. The quartet switched places to demonstrate different characters. The constant movement of chairs as well as bodies was a bit hard to follow, at least upon the first listening. However, the programmatic speeches matched well with the extended techniques and timbral fancies explored by the players.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht appeared next on the program. This work is a world away from Schoenberg’s later and crazier pieces, for which he is best known. Verklärte Nacht interests us because of this difference; one can just imagine a Chorus of Old Women, who sigh “just where did this nice boy go so wrong?”

Verklärte Nacht has a beautiful opening, but just coasts along after a point as if the composer just waits for the piece to end. The Aeolus Quartet played the piece beautifully with great cohesion. The descending trills at the end, in particular, recalled Ravel’s impressionistic works at their finest. The piece was hardly transformative, but this was more the fault of the composer than a shortcoming of the group.

Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden, was the highlight of the night. It’s a challenge to close with such a well-known piece and do something new, something better, than the countless quartets that have played the piece before.

In one extraordinary touch, the quartet took the theme of the fourth movement:Der Tod und das Mädchen

and added the slightest of pauses before the cadence, marked here in green. Moments like these kept the performance fresh and engaging. They showed the group’s mastery of the score as well as the technique needed to play the challenging piece.

The group’s cohesion, as always, was fantastic. If there was one point to criticize, it was the second movement that seemed a bit rushed. Schubert based his second movement off of his earlier Lieder, “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), sung mournfully slowly here by Marian Anderson. The group clipped though the entire quartet; they gave a vigorous fourth movement, but rushed through what is perhaps the saddest and most beautiful moment of the piece.

Most quartets stick to a tried-and-true formula: a nice classical work by Mozart or Haydn, followed by a modern quartet or two at the end. This programmatic recital closed instead with the oldest (a quartet from the Romantic era) and opened with two recent works–one modern, one contemporary. The three pieces balanced each other well with a constant programmatic thread to deliver a truly “transfigured” performance.


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