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Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
String Quartet in A Minor, Op.13 (1827) [28:58]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartettsatz in C Minor, D.703 (1820) [8:48]
Felix MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY
Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op.20 (1825) [31:40]
Afiara String Quartet (Valerie Li, Yuri Cho (violins), David Samuel (viola), Adrian Fung (cello)), Alexander String Quartet (Octet) (Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz (violins), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
rec. 23-26 September, 10-11 December 2008, St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California.
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD1995 [68:46]

The Spanish work fiar means “to trust”. Trusting your partners is vital among the members of a chamber ensemble. That’s why the Afiara String quartet took this word as the base of their name when they were formed in 2006. The members of the quartet are all Canadian, but their current center of performing gravity is San Francisco. At the end of this disc they are joined by their mentors, the veteran members of the Alexander Quartet, for an electrifying performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet.
 
The A Minor Quartet may be a juvenile composition, but in Mendelssohn’s case juvenile should never be overlooked. Despite the smaller opus number, the quartet was actually composed following the Octet and the Midsummer Overture. Written soon after Beethoven’s death, it is so full of allusions to Beethoven’s late string quartets, as if it was created in a conscious homage. Some places sound practically like quotations though without the bold strokes and the irreverent innovation of late Beethoven. Regardless of this, it’s a very impressive work.
 
The opening Allegro vivace is troubled: verging on desperate. The slow movement contains a plaintive fugue with episodes of greater agitation. This is followed by a sad minuet with traits of a folk-song. Its Trio has the weightless, elfin qualities that we associate with Mendelssohn’s scherzos, busy and flickering. The finale is restless and tempestuous, with heavyweight seriousness, not yet typical of Mendelssohn at this age.
 
The performance is coherent and harmonious, with fine nuances, perfectly blended ensemble and excellent shading. The singing intonations and dramatic expressivity are without excessive pressure. Their drama sounds natural and intimate, never turning into banal thrashing around. They maintain the tension in slower parts, and do not become muddy in crowded moments. The tempi are natural and expressive and the performance is involved and involving. 

Quartettsatz
, usually counted as Schubert’s Quartet No.12, is actually a lonely first movement, which Schubert wrote when he was 23 and left unfinished. This torso can stand on its own, and the distinct musical parallel to the Unfinished Symphony is striking. The dramatic, Erlkönig-like music, nervous and lyrical in turns, has all the hallmarks of Schubert’s last creative period. Turbulent episodes give place to poignantly tender ones. Everything is crispy and tight, with strong momentum, and the music flies by like an arrow.
 
If anything goes to prove the teenage Mendelssohn as a genius it’s his Octet. The first movement is an explosively happy Allegro, overflowing with young energy and bursting with enthusiasm. The slow movement is subdued and melancholic; the tone is misty and the feeling is uneasy. The fantastic, impossible Scherzo is in perpetual movement: this is the mother of all “Mendelssohnian” scherzos, alive and kicking. The finale returns to the happy enthusiasm of the opening movement. It has the atmosphere of a country festival, with merry fiddles and colorful pairs spinning in a joyous dance.
 
It is not every two ensembles that can be superimposed without the result becoming congealed and heavy. In this case the purity and lightness of touch, so characteristic of the Alexander Quartet, mean that when they join the Afiara the music stays light and lean. All voices are heard in natural balance and the colors blend well. The Scherzo has the necessary dryness; the performers emphasize the beat, which occasionally gives the music a polka flavor. They drive through the finale with rustic roughness.
 
The recording is transparently clear but a bit remote, from the side. This detaches the listener from the music, but on the other hand has created a feeling of purity. Overall, I greatly enjoyed the disc, which puts together three beautiful works in excellent interpretations. I understand that this is the Afiara’s debut recording. A debut to praise! 

Oleg Ledeniov 

Masterwork Index: Schubert Quartettsatz