Splendid Haydn Performances from the Jerusalem Quartet

15/02/2018

Haydn: Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.2.2018. (MB)

Haydn – String Quartet in C major, op.33 no.3, ‘The Bird’; String Quartet in D major, op.64 no.5, ‘The Lark’; String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1

Haydn surprises with the unexpected, whereas Mozart surprises with the expected. As with all rules of thumb, there are exceptions, sometimes important enough to have one rethink the entire generalisation. (I remain convinced that I read it once in HC Robbins Landon, yet have been unable to find the source. Please do let me know if you know!) There was no doubting, however, the ‘surprises’, however well one ‘knew’ them already, revealed in the tension of the opening of the first movement to the C major Quartet, op.33 no.3, often known as ‘The Bird’. Indeed, the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance occasionally put me in mind of Bartók. Chirping was no mere tone-painting, of course, but musically generative, just as it would be in the music of the later composer. Throughout, sonata form emerged from and through the musical material and its development, not least the jolt of the recapitulation opening in so unexpected – yes – a key. Tone was varied, at times verging even upon the relatively astringent; there was always, however, a musical justification for what we heard. The throwaway ending was, rightly, possessed of a knowledge that comedy is not only a laughing matter. The ensuing scherzo was heard with a strange, straightforward, almost Beethovenian simplicity and sincerity. Surprises galore followed, with a concision beyond even that of the first movement. The slow movement was taken swiftly indeed, but it worked. If its beginnings seemed again sometimes to hint at Beethoven, the path taken proved quite different. A modulation one can surely only call Schubertian was judged in performance to perfection, telling on account of its integration. Motivic integrity and invention were revealed truly as the agents of comedic drama in a finale that did just what it should, when it should, how it should – without that ever implying there to be no other way.

However much there is of Haydn’s music, it is always different. Only to an ear that does not, cannot, listen, will it ever sound ‘the same’. The ‘Lark’ Quartet showed that very well, both as work and as performance. Here, interestingly, the players’ general tone was somewhat different: more modern, even Romantic, although there was certainly nothing anachronistic to it. The contrast with the earlier quartet could only be described as fruitfully dialectical. One size never fits all; there was no attempt to make it do so here. I also noticed immediately how the mood of the first movement’s marking ‘Allegro moderato’ had been captured; tempo is never just, or even principally, about speed. Throughout, an almost Mozartian joy in counterpoint told for itself. The slow movement, here placed second, was again on the swift side for an Adagio but was undoubtedly cantabile. That songfulness was full of integrated incident, worlds away from any lazy all-purpose ‘lyricism’ and all the better for it. The Minuet, again in character as much as mere crotchets per minute, was very much of the allegretto variety. Counterpoint was lightly worn yet generative; so too was the humour of expectation. A Haydn finale, if ever there were one, followed, its moto perpetuo no mere display but musically necessary. Again, counterpoint proved the agent of joy, and vice versa.

Following the interval, a performance of the op.77 no.1 quartet breathed the initial sprit of opera buffa, blossoming into ‘purely musical’ delight. The first movement’s tonal structure proved as well judged in performance as in the score, the development’s first modulation the gateway to an exploration such as, one felt, Haydn had never quite conducted before. After The Creation, before The Seasons, he still had so much to say, so many new tonal relations to explore. Beethoven again came frequently to mind in the Adagio, some passages even suggesting his later quartets. The music sang with, through an intellectual complexity that was anything but forbidding; it could hardly have been more inviting. There were surprises galore again in the minuet – a Presto scherzo in all but name – and its trio, the world of the Razumovsky Quartets again close, yet never quite to be confused with what we heard. Invention and wisdom proved quite undimmed in the finale. The minuet from the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, op.76 no.4, proved a splendid choice of encore, the humour with which its own surprises told as infectious as anything heard earlier. How could anyone not love Haydn?

Mark Berry

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