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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Concert Review: An Afiara to Remember

Elegant Schubert and Beethoven in Murray Hill.
The Afiara Quartet: (l.-r.) Yuri Cho, violin; Adrian Fung, cello;
Valerie Li, violin and David Samuel, viola.
On Thursday night, the Montréal Chamber Music Festival offered an intimate evening of intricate works by Beethoven and Schubert. The concert was held at the WMP Concert Hall, an unlikely jewel box recital hall tucked behind a storefront on East 28th St.

With its vintage furniture, hanging chandelier and antique mirrors on the wall, the WMP Hall is an urban anachronism, looking more like a small conservatory chamber in the Schonbrunn or Esterhazy than what it is, a New York concert hall slipped into a neighborhood where music lovers rarely tread.

The performances, by cellist Denis Brott and the Afiara String Quartet, were equally elegant. The concert opened with Beethoven's A Major Sonata for Cello and Piano, with Mr. Brott accompanied by pianist Kevin Loucks. The A Major Sonata is also notable for its second movement, which has the rhythmic seeds of the famous Scherzo from the Ninth Symphony.

The cello sonatas are among Beethoven's least appreciated chamber works, charming examples of his genius. Here, this music was played with warm tones from Mr. Brott's cello and the house Bösendorfer, intertwining to make two instruments resound like an orchestra in the tiny space. 

Mr. Brott put the composition in context by reading a translation of the famous "Immortal Beloved" letter between movements, giving an emotional underpinning to the eloquent music. But the real beauty came in his passionate bowing, playing Beethoven's rhythm-driven melodies with a sure touch. With playing like this, the letter, though historically interesting, proved superfluous. 

Without taking an interval, the piano was moved back and Mr. Brott was joined by the Afiara String Quartet to play Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. With an unusual configuration (the second 'cello replaces the more traditional viola, this expansive, symphonic quintet derives much of its power from the interlocking cello counterpoint that plays throughout its four movements.

With Mr. Brott taking the second cello part, the Afiara Quartet forged ahead with a bold interpretation that made the most of Schubert's melodies without sacrificing energy and drive. From the opening movement with its three traded-off main themes, the players' interaction in the small space showed both their experience playing together and joy in this glorious music.

The second movement evokes the same Viennese lyricism as Beethoven's Scene by the Brook in the Pastorale Symphony. It was played tenderly and with delicate care. The third featured potent rhythms, played with taut precision. The finale brought the performance to a stirring conclusion, a whirling dance of melody with a tinge of Hungarian folksiness that looks forward to Brahms.

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