The awesome Aris Quartett joins my list of favorite string quartets with 4 CDs from Genuin Classics. Here's an overview of them all plus the other groups on the list.
The Dover. The Escher. The Pacifica. And, to a lesser degree, the Attacca (which is focused almost solely on contemporary music). And now I happily add another string quartet to my 'Favorites of All Time' list - the Aris.
I started this blog entry as a review of 4 CDs from the Aris Quartett on Genuin Classics. But it quickly evolved into a mini-overview of all my favorite string quartets. So bear with me. I will eventually get into more detail about this batch of recordings from the Aris.
Of these groups, four are, coincidentally, American. The Aris is German. And they all easily stand alongside one another in the lofty, ultimate group of today's supreme string quartets. Most are relatively newly assembled (the Pacifica being the exception, formed as long ago as 1994) and comprised of young(er) players. And that very singularity (and common thread) ushers in a new age of string quartet playing, with freshness of new discovery and dazzling exuberance to everything they play.
But there's more.
Unique among this younger generation of string quartets is a daring. Daring in dynamic range; in tonal color, variety and exploration; in precision of execution; and also in diversity of repertoire. They can play literally anything and everything equally well. And it gives each group the depth of character and musical insight enabling them to bring new life to every recording - with inspiration, natural spontaneity, vitality, and a communicative essence to their music-making.
And long gone are the days of the prominent first violin. Each member of these groups is an equal, bringing an individuality, strength, and effortless virtuosity, combining to make the entire group extraordinary.
With the Dover and Escher, I hear a firmness of strength and individuality from each and every player, resulting in a certain "muscularity" to their playing. With the Dover, it's this plus a phenomenal precision of ensemble and articulation which is so remarkable. With the Escher, it's this plus a richness of tone. Both groups exhibit playing - especially of the Classics - which is absolutely thrilling.
With the Aris, I hear all of these superlatives. Their blend, in particular, combined with amazing tonal variety, affords them a sound which is simply seductive. (The Pacifica also comes to mind in this regard.) Highest praise must be given to the viola, Caspar Vinzens, for his beauty of tone which blends so gorgeously with the others - never sounding nasal or husky. The sheer musicality of their overall blend is enhanced by their variety of tone and vibrato. Time and again they will begin a passage from barely a whisper - sans vibrato - then, in the next phrase, add the vibrato and play with the utmost sweetness and singing lyricism, creating a striking contrast to the starkness which precedes it. This variety (plus the unanimity of execution) is breathtaking.
And then, with a tremendous crescendo, they can turn up the drama with a fortissimo which miraculously never sounds aggressive or gruff. So many times I have thought of this group as sounding positively symphonic/orchestral - not only in their endless variety of color and dynamics but in their stunning ability to create such a powerful sound. Not just loud; powerful. I am amazed there are only four players. (The same can certainly be said of the Dover and the Escher too.)
These characteristics are displayed everywhere in their set of recordings for Geniun Classics, but are exemplified with perfection in their superb reading of the Schubert #14 in D minor. This reading stands out as being absolutely magnificent in every way - for dynamic extremes and control (from exquisite pianissimos to passionate fortissimos); tonal shadings and color; variety of texture and vibrato; musical immersion and sheer invigoration. This is undoubtedly one of the very best recordings of a string quartet I have ever experienced.
Their Shostakovich 8th is another stellar display of dynamic extremes, combined with richness of tone from all four players, which really is something to behold.
There is another recording of which I must make mention. That is the exquisite clarinet playing of Thorsten Johanns in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. This Brahms disc (which also includes the 1st Quartet in C minor) is simply glorious from start to finish, but the Quintet is special. Johanns is not spotlit and does not play as if he's a featured soloist. Integrating with the overall blend of the quartet, the clarinet becomes just another member of the group, and thus blends beautifully with them - merely adding new color and texture to the sound. And what music they make together! I'm not sure I've ever heard the piece played as gorgeously as here. And I can only hope they combine forces again to record the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.
After watching the Aris Quartett's YouTube videos (Mendelssohn & Haydn), I was so impressed I was eager to explore their CDs - four discs on the Genuin Classics label. Interestingly, the first of these (Beethoven #9 and #14) was a "special prize" awarded to the Aris Quartett in the form of a free CD production from Genuin Classics as a result of being the 2016 Award Winner of the International ARD Music Competition. The CDs are handsomely produced, with very attractive covers and high-quality booklets.
And speaking of Genuin, I don't think I've mentioned yet how superb the recorded sound is - completely realistic in capturing the wide dynamic range and variety of tonal colors within a warm and dimensional acoustic. It is simply miraculous how the group naturally and effortlessly fills the hall with sound in a most tangible, palpable way. All four recordings are simply marvelous, for all the reasons noted above.
I don't know if it's advancements in recording techniques/capabilities, or the unbelievably high level of accomplishment of today's young string players - or both, but I have never in my life enjoyed, or been so emotionally moved by, string quartets as much as I have listening to recordings from these 5 groups. They each bring similarities in the way in which they communicate musical involvement with the listener. They are equals in an elite group of superlative musicians. But each brings individual characteristics which make them uniquely memorable and musically enriching. And they certainly demonstrate the ultimate in achievement among today's string quartets.
If I had to prioritize these groups in any kind of order/ranking, I simply could not. They each offer such unique and treasurable gifts. And, it really depends on what they're playing. However, three stand side-by-side at the top. The Aris, Dover and Escher are simply incomparable in everything they play - from contemporary music to the Classics. The Pacifica certainly excels at new contemporary music (bringing their characteristic sweetness of expression) but are rather more "traditional" in the Classics. (Although their Mendelssohn is very good, their Dvorak and Brahms are surprisingly commonplace). And the Attacca is thus far rather limited to contemporary music - where they can be extraordinary.
Finally, we are indebted to small, independent, Classical specialty record labels for bringing such wonderful groups to the listening public, in state-of-the-art recorded sound: Azica, BIS, Cedille, Genuin and others. (The Escher and Pacifica have also recorded for Naxos in the past, and the Attacca has a new disc coming soon from SONY.) The excellence of recorded sound certainly plays a large part in the overall enjoyment of the music-making heard on all these recordings. I look forward to every new recording from all these groups.
Essential listening (alphabetical by group):
(This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather those recordings I have heard and can recommend without hesitation.)
*All four reviewed here (Beethoven/Brahms/Schubert/Shostakovich) - Genuin (2017-21)
*John Adams (complete) - Azica (2013)
Orange (music of Caroline Shaw) - Nonesuch (2019)
*Songlines (music of Michael Ippolito) - Azica (2017)
*Beethoven - ongoing series (two installments now available) - Cedille (2019-21)
Mozart (K 589/590 + Quintet K 406) - Cedille (2016)
*Schumann (complete) - Azica (2019)
Voices of Defiance (music of Laks, Shostakovich, Ullmann) - Cedille (2017)
Clarinet Quintets For Our Time (with clarinetist David Shifrin - music of Ellington and Rogerson) - Delos (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - BIS (2015-16)
*Dvorak "American"/Tchaikovsky 1st/Borodin 2nd - BIS (2017)
*Dance (with guitarist Jason Vieaux) - Azica (2019)
Misericordia (with flutist Carol Wincenc - music of Uebayashi) - Azica (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - Cedille (2005)
Ornstein 2nd + Piano Quintet - Cedille (2014)
*Contemporary Voices - Cedille (2020)
Souvenirs of Spain & Italy (with guitarist Sharon Isbin) - Cedille (2019)
*the best of the best