By any count, today is a golden age for string quartets. Dozens of groups of international standing ply the concert platform on several continents. One of those, founded nearly 30 years ago, made a belated debut at Meany Hall Thursday night.
The Auryn Quartet began life in Germany and is now based in Cologne. It has toured widely, in Europe and North and South America as well as Australia and Asia. The group’s recordings are equally impressive with complete cycles of the Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms quartets and Haydn to be finished just down the road. All together more than 150 string quartets have entered its repertory with about 100 chamber music works – trios to octets – performed with all sorts of eminent musicians and ensembles such as the Guarneri and Amadeus, with whom the Auryn studied, and the Prazak.
Founding members – Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann, violin; Stewart Eaton, viola; and Andreas Arndt, cello- still constitute the ensemble. That kind of unanimity is evident in everything the quartet played at Meany: Mendelssohn’s Sixth String Quartet, Alban Berg’s String Quartet (Op. 3) and Brahms’ Second Quartet. It seemed as if the four men breathed every bar together, so unanimous was their ensemble. Of course, many quartets of the first order play together – one of the reasons why music festivals don’t program string quartets with any regularity; that kind of ensemble is hard to devise with only a handful of rehearsals – but still, the Auryn seems particularly noteworthy in this regard. It gives the music-making an edge, a kind of sharp definition others don”t possess in quite that degree.
This is not just a matter of attacks, but also of balance. The four musicians’ individual tones work together collectively, with the first violin and cello taking the most prominent roles. Lingenfelder possesses a timbre that is brilliant, easily able to soar above everyone else but also capable of tucking into the middle. He never just dominates. There is always a reason. Not only does Arndt, like Lingenfelder, have formidable fingers he has a tone quality that is unusually striking: resonant and rich at the bottom and warm and mellow at the top. He provides great body to the ensemble as a whole.
The program was an especially attractive one, beginning with the Mendelssohn. The men captured the composer’s dazzling virtuosity, especiallyLingenfelder, but also the darker moments. Too many musicians see just the light side of the composer. The Auryn captured the whole which provided for an illuminating performance, at times thrilling and at other times sublime. The F Minor Quartet was Mendelssohn’s final gesture toward the string quartet form and certainly his most stormy and passionate, which undoubtedly arose in part from the unexpected death, in 1847, of his highly gifted, older sister, Fannie, whom he adored. He was to die only five months later.
Composed more than a half century later, in 1910, Berg’s Quartet is a different kettle of fish. There is nothing looking back about this work. Its face is staring down the future. Of the three Second Viennese School composers, Berg was the most lyrical. One can hear that in this quartet, which Auryn made quite clear, but not to the point of dilly-dally romantic impulses. The music is tightly wound, emphatic in style and deliberate in manner. It made a very good contrast with the lament of the Mendelssohn. One of the most remarkable things about the Auryn is that it managed to capture the essential qualities of both works.
One could say the quartet has a natural affinity for Brahms, but no more so than to either Mendelssohn or Berg. The four musicians gave the Brahms its full due, as the piece reflects on the past and considers the future. One of the most enduring traits of the Auryn is its scholarly thoroughness without a trace of being the pedant.
Too much time elapsed before those in Seattle got to hear the Auryn. I hope not so much time will elapse before its return.