In performance: Schubert, Schubert and Schubert
Auryn Quartet and friends celebrate Schubert in annual festival
by Robert Battey
The "Schubert, Schubert and Schubert," a festival last weekend at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall, is certainly the best classical-music value in Washington. Thanks to sponsorship by the Austrian Embassy and other donors, $10 got you tickets to all three performances, featuring the world-class Auryn Quartet and guest artists. This was the festival's 25th anniversary.
Schubert -- whose music is front and center in recitals, chamber music and orchestra concerts throughout the world -- hardly needs any advocacy or price incentives. And, it must be noted, his music only made up a third of the works presented during the festival.
Gaston Hall, aside from indifferent acoustics, is hot, creaky and cramped. But the place was packed throughout the weekend, and the performances fully justified any inconveniences.
The Auryn Quartet makes few appearances in the United States outside this annual Schubert festival, but it has a thriving career in Europe, and a large discography. The quartet plays with uncommon unanimity and maturity. It employs the "American seating" -- viola on the outside -- unlike virtually all other European groups, and it brings a richer blend to the already plush sound.
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The group was at its considerable best in the Schubert "Quartettsatz" and "Rosamunde" quartets; the players' deep familiarity with the works and the idiom in general yielded great rewards. Fully attuned to Schubert's complex emotional states, the group truly brought the notes to life. Vibrato was both carefully matched and applied (or not). From phrase to phrase, the flow of ideas, particularly in the inner voices, kept the ear alert. Schubert's wide range of accents -- from a tender nudge to a violent blow -- were scrupulously rendered.
The Auryn's one drawback in this repertoire is an unfortunate tendency to slow down in intimate passages; the music doesn't need it, and the gear-shift back to the starting tempo is impossible to conceal. This quirk was not present in Schumann's Quartet in F, a lovely, difficult and rarely played work. There the music flowed with less fuss, though one might have wanted a little more fire in the Scherzo and the finale.
When the Auryn was joined by guest artists -- for Schubert's Cello Quintet, Mendelssohn's B-flat Viola Quintet, the Schumann Piano Quintet and the Dvorak Sextet -- the performances were both more straightforward and had an every-man-for-himself quality. Certainly the highlight of the non-quartet works was the Mendelssohn, where Michael Tree of the recently departed Guarneri Quartet sat in. There, we heard an ideal blend of spontaneity and fine detail; the players dug into the brilliant orchestral-style writing with gusto.
The Schumann Quintet featured Menahem Pressler, who at this stage is more of a totem of great musicianship than a reliable pianist. His playing was often blurred and fragile, but he still cast a mystical spell, each player listening intently to him. Guest cellist Niklas Schmidt turned in a very impressive "Arpeggione" Sonata, but a rather wan "Fantasiestücke" of Schumann. All in all, though, a highly successful weekend.
-- Robert Battey
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