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Wigmore Hall, London 3 January 2004

String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 'Serioso'
String Quartet in A op 41 no 3
String Quartet no 9 in E flat op 117

Purcell Room, London 11 November 2004

String Quartet no 7 in F# minor, op 108
String Quartet in D minor, D 810
Andante cantabile

Sergey Ostrovsky - Violin I Evgenia Epshtein - Violin II
Rachel Mercer - Cello Shuli Waterman - Viola

A full house greeted this Israeli-based string quartet, founded in 1998 and new to me in 2004, but not to the Wigmore Hall and its chamber music devotees. Very much a group of four equals, they have distinctive individual and collective sounds; it is not inappropriate that the picture features the lower instruments, which are particularly strong in this ensemble.

Sergey Ostrovsky is the 'leader' but he does so, if he does, unassertively, so that attention is often directed upon the others who all bring their personalities to interact with the composers. Shuli Waterman seems to possess a particularly splendid viola and attracts attention to the inner voices, nor does Evgenia Epshtein shrink at the second desk, giving an impression that she could easily take over. Rachel Mercer, their later recruit in 2002, brings a clear and always intelligent focus to the depths. Ostrovsky maintains a light touch and always beautiful tone, often seeming to offer a high melodic counterpoint above his colleagues, but never drawing attention to himself. It would be fascinating to eavesdrop upon them rehearsing!

The three composers were well differentiated, Beethoven urgent, the interplay strongly characterised and the whole concentrated edifice sweeping inexorably towards its dancing presto conclusion with exhilarating virtuosity, whilst demonstrating throughout that these players listen to each other, taking centre stage and receding by turns. The Schumann, not easy to articulate as a whole, had them carrying us through his waywardness and unpredictable turns of phrase with unerring control of rubato, leaving us at the interval feeling that it had not been a descent from Beethoven and that Schumann's quartets don't deserve to be left out of the canonic top-drawer. Schumann's music cannot be taken for granted; it needs, more than its companions that night, to be recreated de novo at each performance. Shostakovich's No 9 is a large work, its five main sections played continuously, and here different tones were discovered by these players, including sparing vibrato and heavily accented, but not quite rasping, savagery - though that latter came less easily to their leader, who does not like to compromise his beautiful basic tone too much.

A great concert, one of those occasions of which it is said 'you could hear a pin drop' or, more tellingly, one in which concentration was undisturbed by any winter coughs.

It has given me pleasure to explore the Aviv Quartet on the Web, and to discover that two of their concerts, one including Shostakovich No 8, can be downloaded and listened to on Real Audio from the ArtPro website (ensembles).

There, you will also find comprehensive information and perceptive reviews of previous appearances in London. So, click to download your choice of masterworks from a concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre in 2003 with the Aviv Quartet's present line-up. Listen and enjoy; and don't miss the next chance to see and hear them live when they come to town, yours or mine.

Purcell Room, London 11 November 2004

The Aviv Quartet made a flying return visit from Tel Aviv to play for just one hour in the South Bank lunchtime series; no other engagements in UK until next year! With a full house they sounded, if anything, even better in the Purcell Room, not always the easiest of acoustics, than in Wigmore Hall before. They had us hanging on the harmonic sense of each transition and the weighting and colour of every chord.

The concise Shostakovich No 7 showed the cohesion of the group and highlighted the individual character of each individual's playing. Here, and in tne Schubert which followed, heard them 'weighing' each chord, and placing it in terms of the harmonic position in the argument.

Schubert's Death and the Maiden
Quartet gave them scope to expand and to finish with a controlled race to the abyss (Julian Haycock in his note suggests that the whole quartet is about death). This usually staid midday-break audience of shoppers and matinée theatre-goers(?), who are inclined to rush out after the last note, was enthused sufficiently to demand an encore; Tchaikowsky's Andante Cantabile, just right to calm us down.

The Avivs have a contract with Naxos, for whom their first recording (Budapest, 2001, with founder cellist Iris Jortner then) is of three charming, if light-weight, quartets by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812), better known as a publisher and for having his name attached to Mozart's Quartet K.499 [Naxos 8.555952].

The last, and most substantial of the set, has a probable tribute to the younger composer in a similarity between Hoffmeister's finale and the beginning of Mozart's minuet. One of these quartets would make a welcome, undemanding novelty to start a programme. It is good that for their first CDs the Aviv Quartet has avoided the best known 'standards'.

There might be better quartets somewhere, but we don't need them. Let's hope the Avivs stay a little longer in UK next time!

Wigmore Hall 31 May 2005

Another good recital, with a challenging programme. Beethoven Op 18/6 with scrupulous attention to all detail; Bartok 5 fierce and exciting, with evocative 'night music'. The symphonic Brahms Op 51/1 received a thoughtful reading in which the dense textures were clarified and full weight given to the contributions of the inner parts.

I hope that next time they come, the Avivs will offer something less strenuous, perhaps some Mendelssohn, whose quartets (until recently under-rated) have been entrancing us (what do Israelis feel about this composer who converted out of his religion?).

See also CD review (Shostakovich Nos 8 & 9)

Wigmore Hall 19 Oct 2006

Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6 in F minor Op. 80
Alban Berg: String Quartet Op. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C Op. 59 No. 3 'Razumovsky'

No, not 'less strenuous' at all, but - responding maybe to my wish - introducing Mendelssohn. Here at his most uncomfortable, in a searing response to the death of his beloved Fanny, and not long before his own. This is one of the most draining memorials in instrumental music, an angry imprecation to the deity, q.v. London International String Quartet Competition, 1994):

- - The Mendelssohn string quartets should be in everyone's library, and this set by the composer's eponymous Bartholdy Quartet will do you as well as anyone's. Prizewinners in their time, they are poised and wise interpretations, avoiding over-emphasis but phrased beautifully and giving full power and vehemence to Felix Mendelssohn's angry memorial for his sister Fanny shortly before his own death. This Op 80 of 1847 famously won the Vellinger Quartet their victory in the London String Quartet Competition 1994, after which they led a performance of it in the Barbican Centre by all the participating quartets conducted by Sir Yehudi Menuhin; unforgettable! - -

Mendelssohn's F minor has such a powerful presence in recital as to tend to erase memories of other performances, whilst it grabs and holds you. It found the Aviv's maintaing their peak form, leaving little for the critic to say. One admired the collective tone, and the individual contributions of each and every player, neither reticent nor seeking soloistic domination within the ensemble.

One eminent strings expert found it hard to transfer his attention immediately to Berg. I thought that juxtaposition apt and memorable; less often given, I found Berg's early masterpiece (composed around the end of his pupillage with Schoenberg) a concert experience altogether more engaging than the more familiar Lyric Suite.

To complete the programme (and afterwards sensibly rejecting the audience's demand for encore) Beethoven's Op 59/3, the one of the set hardest to tire of and most effective in performance. A performance which brought all aspects into balance (c.f. my characterisation of the four players above, at the top). Especially noteworthy was the subtlety of Rachel Mercer's cello pizzicato phrasing in the slow movement and the lightness of the fugal finale, which allowed it to go at speed without strain, to everyone's enjoyment.

I hope the Avivs will make a CD of this programme?

Peter Grahame Woolf

Schulhoff String Quartets

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
5 Pieces

Aviv Quartet

Naxos 8.570965 [recorded 2008]

It has been too long since we have heard the Avivs in London, but this Schulhoff CD should serve to remind Musical Pointers visitors of their excellence.

Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a concentration camp in 1942, was perhaps at his peak during the exciting '20s, and all this music from 1923-25 is redolent of the times. The first quartet is compact, its most extended movement the last which, after an impassioned climax retreats into a haunting, long drawn out and introspective close. The second is equally engaging, as are the five character dance pieces recalling popular music of the era. A great discovery.

You can sample all tracks at www.classicsonline, giving a good flavour of Schulhoff's originality in the mid-'20s, and the superior recording values of this bargain release.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Comment: Actually, this one is better that great! The last movement of the first quartet is the real spine-chiller. [SW]

Photo Roman Malamant

© Peter Grahame Woolf