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RECITAL REVIEW
Sonoma Classical Music Society / Sunday, February 9, 2014
Alexander String Quartet

Alexander String Quartet

IMPECCABLE BEETHOVEN FROM THE ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 9, 2014

In the classical music world, snazzy innovation and music puffery catch the headlines, but there is always a role for an instrumental group with long experience and impeccable artistic integrity. The Alexander String Quartet's Feb. 9 concert in the Sonoma Classical Chamber Music Series proved that decades of performance excellence could make an all-Beethoven program seem as familiar and cozy as an old house slipper.

Before a packed Vintage House audience, the Alexander opened with the 1798 C Minor Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4, and gave a svelte and polished reading throughout. There was a uniform blending of sound, with the high-ceiling room favoring cellist Sandy Wilson's cello sound and a desired reverberation time of just under one-half a second. In the second movement (Andante Scherzoso) first violinist Zakarias Grafilo played often with a spiccato bow, and the ensemble was perfection. The dark drama of the Menuetto was played to highlight the piquant harmonies, and the finale was a whirling dance, the Quartet alternating the major and minor keys to a "gypsy" effect. The pizzicato playing was exemplary.

Beethoven's last completed Quartet, Op. 135, closed the first half. Playing in the first movement was insistent but never forceful, the long ascending phrases not melodic but strongly rhythmic. In the tranquil Lento, a peaceful aura was created, the top violin and bottom cello lines surrounding the floating inner voices. Time seem to stop at the end. Though the sharp opening of the finale with themes played in unison was dramatic, the piece's cohesion was palpable. It was a magical performance.

Beethoven's middle-period E Minor Quartet (Op. 59, No. 2) closed the afternoon in a faultless performance where subtle volume changes appeared in each of the four movements. This deftly proportioned playing was never rushed and emphasized long, singing lines. Mr. Grafilo played a section in the Adagio where soft ascending and descending notes were perfectly graded, and Mr. Wilson ended the movement with a long downward phrase of delicacy and finality.

The Presto finale had a wonderful interplay of contrapuntal voices, often beginning with the second violin, and then to violist Paul Yarbrough and the cello and first violin. It was often fast and tenacious playing, jolly and then pushy, with virtuoso work from Mr. Grafilo.

As the West Coast's premier string quartet, the Alexander has appeared in seven of the Sonoma Society's ten seasons, and clearly artistic experience pays rich dividends.