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Technically and emotionally, quartet among best of Slee

Once again, Western New York gets to hear another ensemble wend its way through portions of the Slee Beethoven String Quartet Cycle.

The concert Friday was the fourth event in the series, a circumstance allowing longtime attendees to, in their mind’s ear, reflect upon how the Alexander String Quartet performance holds up in comparison to that of other artists who have played in this project. That, or they could just contemplate/enjoy the genius of the composer, from relative youth to fulsome maturity.

The musicians were fine, and their interplay was just what you could hope for. Right from the quick, dramatic entrance of the group into Beethoven’s Quartet in F minor (op. 95) to the fading notes of the composer’s late (op. 132) Quartet in A minor, the concert revealed a musical probing that balanced the intellectual and emotional maturity of the author with the, at times, intense propulsion demanded by the writing.

That op. 95 piece opened the concert (as it has since the series began) and is one where Beethoven unveils his mastery of the ecstatic ebb and flow; shifting internal dynamics keep casting their shadows into the future. The first movement Allegro sets the emotional stage, the dither of thoughts whipping through decision-making made manifest by the playing of a wonderful ensemble.

When the work had run its course, the Alexander folks were pretty professional about it. They stood up, accepted the applause and then sat back down, getting into the business of tuning. Then, less than a minute later, they’re off to the races with a younger version of the composer, the Quartet in B flat major (op. 18, no. 6). That set of actions helps to make a concert work.

There are a couple different ways to handle stagecraft: you can either have a spokesman from the group explain what they will be performing, or you can just jump right into the process of playing the music, letting the audience get right into the reason they paid for a ticket. In both cases, the musicians need to ultimately deliver the goods but – granting that they do – I’d opt for the latter option, the one about not delaying my satisfaction.

After the intermission, the group turned to one of Beethoven’s most affecting masterworks, the op. 132 Quartet in A minor. In the right hands – and these were the right hands – this score delivers monumental rewards. There’s the way a weighty opening phrase emerges to weave about in an increasingly dense thicket of ideas, many of which are being developed for future use. Long phrases and quick passagework continually underline the emotional power of the music before slipping into the fourth movement, where the measured approach of a march hints at a composer’s roots. By the time the finale hits, the march has been superseded and raw, seemingly endless energy has taken its place.

It’s difficult to say exactly where the Alexander String Quartet performances lie on the scale of Slee Beethoven cycles. It’s probably towards the top, both in technical execution and in heartstrings tugged.

The group had a master class on Saturday morning and then, that afternoon, hustled over to the Buffalo Suzuki Strings Musical Arts Center in North Tonawanda, where they played the fifth concert in the cycle. Sunday evening’s performance returns to the Lippes Concert Hall for what will probably end up being another season highlight.

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