The Ariel Quartet's members are no slouches; they work hard, and they crank out virtuosity by the bucketful and passion by the yard. Why, then, did their recital on Friday night at the Corcoran Gallery feel so curiously flat?
Maybe it was the wobbly start to the evening, when the Corcoran's technicians forgot to turn on the stage lights, leaving the hapless Ariel to play Beethoven's Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3 in the dim gloom. The opening Allegro of that engaging work should have brightened the place up a bit, but instead came off as lifeless and lacking in momentum, and the group didn't start generating electricity until the closing Presto. Better late than never, but still.
In their defense, the Ariel is still a very, very young quartet. Its members are all in their early 20s, and their strengths, at this stage, are remarkable technical ability and ample supplies of youthful passion. But as the evening wore on, it was clear they burned like straw rather than coal, producing brilliant flashes of light but little lasting heat. Their reading of Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3, for instance, was fiery, intelligent and exceptionally detailed - a treat to hear. Yet for all its interest, the performance felt thin and choreographed, like a staged fight where the punches look real but don't actually connect.
Things warmed up a bit when the much-admired violist Roger Tapping joined the Ariel for Mozart's Viola Quintet in D, K. 593, though it was hard to ignore the contrast between Tapping's seasoned, deliberate power - when he punches, he connects - and the earnest fiddling around him. But these are still early days for the Ariel, and as their passion deepens into insight, the group looks set to accomplish impressive things.