String quartet to perform in free concert; Alexander: The accomplished ensemble has earned high praise for its performances of works by Beethoven.; ARUNDEL LIVE


The Alexander String Quartet, one of the country's most accomplished chamber ensembles, comes to Key Auditorium at St. John's College tomorrow for a free 8: 15 p.m. concert.

The quartet has performed in the musical capitals of four continents since its founding in 1981. In its second year, the San Francisco-based group became the first string quartet to win the prestigious Concert Artists Guild award.

By the mid-1980s, it had become the first American quartet to win first prize and the audience prize at London's International String Quartet Competition, where the group's Beethoven was blessed by the late Yehudi Menuhin.

"It was unbelievably good Beethoven, in conception, musicality, balance of voices, respect for the score, humor, pathos and emotional projection," the violinist said afterward. "There was absolutely nothing that was missing."

The Alexanders have since recorded music from a broad range of genres, but, true to Menuhin's assessment, it is their integral set of Beethoven's 15 quartets on the remarkably inexpensive Arte Nova label that has made the critics (this one included) stand up and take notice.

These are bustling, high-energy readings of sufficient artistic stature to hold their own with the biggest names on the string quartet roster. You'll find more overall elegance from the Quartetto Italiano and more spacious phrasing from, say, the Tokyo Quartet.

But for exciting, emotionally engaged Beethoven caught in excellent sound, the Alexander Quartet is eminently worth hearing.

Nearly two centuries after they were composed, Beethoven's 15 string quartets are considered the Holy Grail of the string chamber repertoire. They read like a microcosm of the great composer's musical life.

The first batch (the six Opus 18's composed in the 1790s) show him working under the classical influences of Haydn and Mozart, his 18th-century predecessors.

The final five, composed much later as Beethoven was dealing with his deafness and his difficult personal life, still amaze many at the pieces' emotional, metaphysical and modernistic complexity.

Tomorrow's concert will feature Opus 59, No. 2, the second of three quartets Beethoven dedicated to Count Andreas Razumovsky, Russia's ambassador to the Austrian court in Vienna and one of the master's most generous patrons. Razumovsky 2 is one of great works of Beethoven's "Middle Period," that first decade or so of the 19th century, during which Beethoven was blazing the trail of fledgling Romanticism with peerless and fearless originality.

The quartet is a rather dark, emotional, spiritually charged affair possessed of one of the most searching, introspective slow movements Beethoven wrote. It should dovetail beautifully with Bela Bartok's bristlingly intense Quartet No.1 and the radiant E-flat Quartet crafted by a young Franz Schubert, the other works the Alexanders are scheduled to perform.

Information: 410-626-2539.

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