BARTÓK; BRAHMS String Quartets (Ariel Quartet)
The Ariel Quartet was formed in Jerusalem nearly 20 years ago when its members – barely into their teens at the time – met in a chamber music class. Here, on their debut recording, the precision and tonal polish they’ve honed over two decades is on proud display. Musically, too, they have much to offer, elucidating the often meaty textures of Brahms’s A minor Quartet without sacrificing any of its warm luxuriance. And in Bartók’s First, they negotiate the rhythmic intricacies of the finale with such deftness that I had the distinct (and delightful) sense of the composer glancing back across the 19th century to Haydn.
The Ariel can enchant, as they do in the Quasi minuetto movement of the Brahms, with its nostalgic, Old World melancholy. And their confident unanimity allows them to convey ferocity without ever seeming to break a sweat – listen, say, to how neatly and nimbly they sprint through the Bartók’s final pages. I’m not convinced such sleek virtuosity is what this music demands, mind you. To my ears, the Végh’s style of emotionally involved storytelling (Naïve, 3/87) gets considerably closer to the heart of Bartók’s score.
Still, I am less bothered by the Ariel’s efforts to smooth over rough edges than I am by their occasional tendency towards metric obduracy. They play with appropriate elasticity in the Brahms, for example, taking time where the music’s punctuation requires it, but all too often I feel the ghostly presence of beat and bar line. It’s there in the opening theme, as well as in the sweeter second subject (at 1'20"), where the Ariel, for all their tender expressivity, seem to trudge doggedly from beat to beat. Turn for comparison to the Belcea (Alpha, 10/16), who make these same melodies soar and sway.
Given the many exemplary qualities of these interpretations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ariel are simply unaccustomed to working in the recording studio. In any case, I’m eager to hear more. A live recording next, perhaps?