Mendelssohn, Schubert: String Quartets / Alfiara & Alexander Quartets

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MENDELSSOHN String Quartet in a, op. 13 1. Octet in E?, op. 20 1,2. SCHUBERT Quartettsatz in c, D 703 1 • 1 Afiara String...

MENDELSSOHN String Quartet in a, op. 13 1. Octet in E?, op. 20 1,2. SCHUBERT Quartettsatz in c, D 703 1 1 Afiara String Quartet; 2 Alexander String Quartet FOGHORN 1995 (68:46)

Readers may recall my Fanfare 33:2 interview with the Alexander String Quartet and accompanying review of its recent Beethoven cycle. This newly received disc, however, allocates more than half of its playing time to another ensemble, one that I had not previously encountered, the Afiara String Quartet. Its members—Valerie Li and Yuri Cho, violins; David Samuel, viola; and Adrian Fung, cello—all hail from Canada. At present, the group is the graduate string quartet in residence at Juilliard, where the players serve as teaching assistants to the Juilliard String Quartet. Prior to this—and here’s where the connection to the Alexander String Quartet comes in—the Afiara Quartet was the Morrison Fellowship Quartet-in-Residence at San Francisco State University’s International Center for the Arts (ICA) from 2007 to 2009, SFSU being the Alexander’s home base since 1989. Formed in 2006, the Afiara String Quartet takes its name from the Spanish fiar , meaning “to trust,” a basic element vital to the depth and joy of its music-making.

I know that saying this yet again is bound to make me sound like a stuck needle in a record groove (you’ll have to explain that one to the grandkids), but say it I must. Almost without exception, every recently formed string quartet I encounter seems to be even better than the one before it. I have no explanation for this other than speculation that today’s mainly American and European conservatories, music schools, and university music departments are experiencing a population boom in string players and are subjecting them to extremely rigorous training programs with exceptionally high standards for earning passing grades. It’s either that or one would have to believe that the gene pool of the general population has suddenly shifted to favor string players above all others.

That said, it should come as no surprise to hear me say that the Afiara’s Mendelssohn is stunning. It’s not just a matter of perfection in technical execution, which, by now, is as expected and un-noteworthy as the fact that the sun rises each morning in the east. Rather, it’s the interpretive imagination and musical expressiveness that impress as so remarkable.

Among Mendelssohn’s numbered string quartets, the A Minor, op. 13 (1827), was the first to be written, two years in fact before the E?-Major, op. 12, but the latter, being the first to be published, received the lower opus number. Recent issues have seen a high number of reviews of new Mendelssohn recordings—and not just of his string quartets—a circumstance that can be attributed to the 200th anniversary in 2009 of the composer’s birth.

The Afiara’s above-mentioned interpretive imagination and musical expressiveness make their mark in so many ways—from the control and gradation of dynamics to the seamless layering of Mendelssohn’s cascaded phrases—but none more impressive and thrilling than the handling of the closing section in the first movement’s exposition (listen starting at 3:14). Bartók himself would have been proud to write such insect-swarming music. It sounds like the buzzing of an angry colony of bees whose hive has been poked with a stick. I’ve heard many quartet ensembles play this passage, but the Afiara definitely cranks up the sting and zing factor. If you’re allergic, you’d better bring your EpiPen along.

If 1815 is the year in Schubert’s life often referred to as the annus mirabilis , one might coin the term annus abbandonato for the year 1820, for that was the year in which the composer began and then abandoned perhaps more works than in any other. The single movement for a string quartet in C Minor, known as the Quartettsatz , was one of them. Forty bars of an Andante survive, a strong indication that Schubert had set out to write a full four-movement work; but like so many other projects begun that year, it was left at the curb. That hasn’t stopped practically every quartet ensemble in existence from playing the completed Allegro assai, an extremely agitated, tightly-wound movement, which in its rapid passagework, superficially at least, resembles Mendelssohn’s writing. But where one senses Mendelssohn exercising his youthful high spirits and extraordinary compositional facility, one senses Schubert exhibiting nervous tics and the onset of his profound psychoneuroses. These do not go unnoticed by the Afiara players, who, even in moments of lyrical relief, manage to convey the underlying anxiety.

There’s a saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good. So what might be the friend of the perfect? Well, that’s easy. It’s the Alexander String Quartet joining the Afiara String Quartet for what may well be the most glorious and exhilarating performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet I’ve yet to hear, live or on record. The Scherzo alone will leave you breathless.

Recorded in September and December of 2008 at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, Calif., the sound is state-of-the-art. For me, this disc is manna for the soul, and it’s going to take some doing to knock it off my 2010 Want List. The CD can be purchased directly from or from—the “www.” is no longer required. What is required is that you purchase this disc post-haste.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2009

  • UPC: 700871199529

  • Catalog Number: FCL1995

  • Label: Foghorn Classics

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Afiara Sring Quartet, Alexander String Quartet