By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The Alexander String Quartet—violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson—has not been idle during the COVID-19 hiatus. While preparing for uncertain performances and teaching schedules, they have returned again to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, California, to record Brahms’ three quartets for their label, Foghorn Classics. And on August 14, the quartet will release its new recording of the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets with Eli Eban, former principal with the Israel Philharmonic and son of Abba Eban, the Israeli diplomat.
The Alexanders are also going through a personnel transition, as founding member Yarbrough will be retiring this summer after 39 years, although he will continue to record with the group when a second violist is needed. In fact, when the quartet welcomes new violist David Samuel from his associate principal post in Auckland, New Zealand, their first recording project will be Mozart’s viola quintets.
As can be imagined during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been no simple task to bring Samuel and his wife, violinist Yuri Cho, into the United States, even though the two Canadian nationals, who are currently domiciled in New Zealand, were married in California ten years ago. When the logistical challenges are resolved, the quartet will also welcome Samuel’s strikingly handsome viola; made by Hiroshi Iizuka in 2004, its shape was inspired by the viola d’amore and was once owned by Michael Tree, Samuel’s former teacher.
I spoke to Lifsitz and Wilson during breaks from their recording sessions for the Brahms quartets.
What did the Brahms quartets mean to you in your development as a young quartet?
Wilson: The Tokyo Quartet’s unforgettable live performances had impressed us in the early days. In studying the works with them, we learned that as luxuriously unctuous as the music can feel at times, it is often a mistake to allow too much latitude in rubati or cadential excesses. Much of the richness of sonority is written into the music as Brahms scored it; sometimes a more austere and reserved approach can yield a more satisfying and successful interpretation.
What have you been rediscovering about Brahms?
Wilson: Brahms is still gnarly, demanding, and frequently and irritatingly technically uncomfortable. That said, when approached with care, his writing is rewarding and, with time, attention to detail, and an unusual amount of discourse and experimentation, his music becomes exquisitely transparent and heavenly. Sometimes, when I let down my guard and allow myself to bask in his rich and ever-surprising sonorities, I can even imagine I am playing Debussy or Ravel.
How do you structure the three to four days you take for your recordings?
Wilson: Typically we’ll prepare in advance, recording our rehearsal play-throughs. These rehearsal recordings are far from high-definition, but after listening and commenting and discussing what we’re hearing in real time, we are better prepared for the piecemeal process of stitching it all together when we get into the studio with our sound engineer and producer. We know where we agree and where we may want to dig deeper or even wander occasionally off the pre-arranged interpretive path.
How did you choose David Samuel?
Wilson: We had followed David’s impressive career and intrepid musical adventures for nearly 15 years. In 2009 we recorded the Mendelssohn Octet with him and his Afiara Quartet colleagues. Our first violinist produced their Beethoven recordings at Banff, and David produced our Mozart Piano Quartet recordings with Joyce Yang in Belvedere. So, when David joined us in San Francisco for a couple of days in summer 2019, we played through familiar and unfamiliar repertoire just to refresh and appreciate our familiarity, and to discuss and explore how the transition into the ASQ would work.
Lifsitz: It’s an exciting fit. David seems to know what I’m going to do before I know myself. His sound is magnetic, always present even in the finest details. It’s hard to say how he will influence us artistically, but we have always accorded full and equal influence and artistic privileges to any new member. Our last change was nearly 20 years ago, so I am looking forward to seeing, hearing, and feeling the change in the vibration of the group.
Wilson: David is already well acquainted with an enormous quantity of quartet repertoire and quite a lot of it is not in the ASQ’s repertoire. I imagine he will have more energy, stamina, and ambition than do I, so I look forward to and am counting on a proverbial “wild ride.” I just hope I can hang on there for another few seasons!
Aside from the uncertainty about immigration, how is the transition working?
Lifsitz: We have all, including Paul, been having Zoom meetings, phone calls, and emails about repertoire and concert dates for the next year and beyond. Obviously, this has been a bizarre time for everyone—we don’t even have a firm date of when we will start playing concerts in a hall with an audience—but we are thrilled that a number of performances planned for this coming year include viola quintets with Paul joining us. He will also join us for recordings of Mozart viola quintets! It’s a beautiful way to pass the viola chair from Paul to David. We played a number of times with David as our guest violist in quintets and sextets of Brahms a few years ago. Now it takes on a different, more mature, and fully integrated completion with this switch in viola roles. It feels like we are the Alexander String Quintet!