In the world of chamber music, Beethoven’s 17 string quartets are the ultimate summit. Composed over a span of more than two-and-a-half decades, Beethoven created masterpieces of astonishing beauty and complexity that never fail to engage listeners. A seasoned ensemble might perform one or two quartets over a season. But very few take on the entire cycle in one season, let alone two months.
The Ariel Quartet will do just that in a series of six concerts — dubbed “The Cycle” — beginning this Thursday, with most of the performances occurring before its members turn 30.
“We joked about performing the cycle before we were 30, but it became something we very much wanted to do,” violist Jan Grüning says. “It had to be this season because my 30th birthday is Feb. 27.”
Grüning describes the Beethoven quartets as an amazing journey, a progression unlike any other in Western music. “The early quartets, written in 1800 and 1801, are influenced by Mozart and Haydn, but Beethoven’s strong character comes through at every corner.”
“The middle quartets reflect a difficult period in Beethoven’s life,” Grüning continues. “His hearing had deteriorated, he contemplated suicide, but he refused to give up. These quartets are a huge expansion of form and length.”
The late quartets are totally unique works that defy description, even for experienced chamber musicians. Beethoven created tonal and rhythmic progressions more challenging than most contemporary compositions. A colleague of Grüning’s told him, “I know why Schubert writes what he writes, but with Beethoven, I don’t know where it comes from.”
“I’m not sure one can understand it rationally,” Grüning says.
“You couldn’t dream of a cycle ending like this one does.”
Each concert features an early, middle and late quartet, and the gap in late quartets will be made up with additional movements Beethoven composed but did not include in the final published scores. “People who can’t make it to all six concerts can still get insights into Beethoven’s life and creative progression,” Grüning says.
Despite their youth, the Ariel Quartet has the experience of older, more established ensembles. Formed in Israel when the original members were in their early teens, they moved to the U.S. in 2004 to study at the New England Conservatory. In 2011, violinists Gershon Gerchikov, Alexandra Kazovsky and cellist Amit Even-Tov selected Grüning to replace their original violist. Grüning acknowledges that this is a group marriage, and one that’s working very successfully. To underscore just how well it’s working, in October the quartet received Chamber Music America’s biennial Cleveland Quartet Award, presented to a rising young ensemble with the promise of an exceptional career.
In 2012, they joined the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) faculty as String Quartet-in-Residence, a position that CCM Dean Peter Landgren says was a priority with personal resonance.
“When I was at CCM studying French horn, I was educated and inspired by the LaSalle Quartet,” Landgren says. “Not having a string quartet in residence at my alma mater was unacceptable, so I worked hard to move this forward.”
The results exceeded everyone’s expectations, Landgren says. “This group works with over two-dozen string quartets and their students are so inspired by the coaching they receive. The Ariels have reignited a love for and the art of performing chamber music.”
Landgren is equally thrilled by the upcoming concert series and by the programming. “It’s a marvelous way to look at it,” he says. “If this cycle is done over a two-year period, you almost forget the first concert by the time you hear the next one. This way, listeners will get a sense of the evolution Beethoven went through with his life and his music.”
Grüning echoes Landgren’s enthusiasm for the residency and for Cincinnati. “The faculty, the dean and the students are so open to what we want to do,” he says, adding that Cincinnati’s size allows them to create a wider network of artists and arts lovers. And there’s not the “attitude” you find in New York, he says.
As the Ariel Quartet prepares for this unique event, its students have the rare opportunity to observe them in rehearsal. “We rehearse at CCM every day,” Grüning says. “It shows them that we’re committed to practicing, and hopefully it inspires them.”
THE ARIEL QUARTET begins the Beethoven string quartet cycle 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday in Corbett Auditorium at CCM. Continuing performances Feb. 20 and 22, March 27 and 29. Tickets ($20) and more information: 513-556-4183, ccm.uc.edu.