Avalon String Quartet
© 2015 Cedille Records/Cedille Chicago
Avalon String Quartet Satisfies on Album of Golijov, Garrop, Debussy and Britten
By Daniel Stephen Johnson, for wqxr.org, published on October 19, 2015
The two recent works on the Avalon Quartet’s new album, “Illuminations,” both look back to earlier eras. Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae (2000), one of his loveliest works, reflects with a neoclassical simplicity, while Stacy Garrop’s titular work (2011)—in its premiere recording—meditates on the art of an even earlier era, namely The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a 15th-century illuminated manuscript. This is inspired programming: ruminative music for string quartet with an exceedingly lovely sound.
The expressive quality of the Avalon Quartet’s playing is difficult to place among contemporary fashions. As old-fashioned effusions of feeling—excesses of portamento, of rubato, of dynamic contrast—have come to seem sentimental and passé, interpreters tend to retreat in one of a few directions: to moderate those excesses, giving the old modes of expression a simple nip-and-tuck update; to eliminate them entirely, with a stoic affective language that privileges clarity over warmth; to push the music towards violent new extremes of raw expression; or some combination of all three.
Avalon does none of these. There is scarcely a hint sentimentality here, but neither is this a cold, arid interpretation, nor does it edge towards some brutal intensity. Rather, if the goal of some modern interpreters is to embody the emotions of the music, like a method actor, this ensemble is less about Marlon Brando realness than Cary Grant glamor, prizing grace, charm and elegance above all, and always offering the most attractive angles to the audience.
And the repertoire they offer here is immensely attractive. In addition to the quartets of Golijov and Garrop, Avalon offers the Debussy String Quartet, a warm and satisfying work, while the early Britten character pieces they have programmed—Three Divertimenti and Alla Marcia from the 1930s—are less well known, but offer hints of the blossoming composer’s appealing wit.