Delightful Sextets from the Jerusalem Quartet and Friends

22/10/2018

R. Strauss, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky: The Jerusalem String Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)], Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Amanda Forsyth (cello), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 14.10.2018. (GN)

Jerusalem String Quartet © Felix Brode

R. Strauss – String Sextet from Capriccio

SchoenbergVerklärte Nacht Op.4

Tchaikovsky – String Sextet in D minor Op.70 ‘Souvenir de Florence’

It’s rare to have a full concert of string sextets, and it is rare indeed to find playing as beautiful as that provided by the Jerusalem Quartet and their two exalted collaborators, violist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth. Warmth and feeling flowed everywhere in this concert, starting from Richard Strauss’s lovely sextet from Capriccio and ending with the energy and romantic ardour of Tchaikovsky’s late sextet, ‘Souvenir de Florence’. In between was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, also painted in luxuriant colours, though here some sharper, more distilled contours might not have been out of place. It was a particular joy to see the Jerusalem Quartet in full splendour: the Vancouver Recital Society sponsored the ensemble literally from its birth-pangs two decades ago.

Few pieces of theatre music rival the beauty and refinement of the sextet from Capriccio. It is played offstage at the beginning of the opera, as a prelude to a grand debate over the merits of music vs. poetry as the supreme art form. Clearly the discussion cannot be neutral when such enticing music is already playing – and its presence could hardly fail to persuade us too, especially when performed with as much sensitivity and eloquence as it was here. The feeling and shape in Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin lines established a captivating lyrical flow and sense of yearning from the outset. And the Straussian shadings just kept coming. The ensemble cohered as one mind, showing splendid control over dynamics and creating an integrated glow over the work’s 13-minute length.

The same Straussian radiance infused Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which was given broad romantic treatment with great involvement and sensitivity. The approach was almost Mediterranean in feeling, ripe and luxuriant. I was consumed by the beauty of this playing and its sureness of line, but could not help but ponder whether it was too warm and comfortable for a work based on Dehmel’s poem, which begins with estranged lovers walking in moonlight in a ‘bare, cold grove’. I have always thought the virtue of this sextet version of the work (which received its recorded premiere from the Hollywood String Quartet in 1950) is that it allowed greater intimacy than the orchestral version, permitting more of the raw, equivocal feelings and sharp edges in the poem to be probed. This would prompt a distilled foreboding and restlessness in the early part of the work (with full cutting intensity in the tremolos), allowing the warm, redemptive viola/cello outpouring later on to have the strongest emotional force. Here this evolution seemed to be an extension of the warmth already established, rather than a key transition point. The sense of flow and unfolding in the current approach, and its larger scale, made it closer to the orchestral version, and I could not help but think of some parallel to Strauss’s Metamorphosen. But very enjoyable and beautiful on its own terms.

Greater virtuosity came into play in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Souvenir de Florence’, bounding forth with spring-like energy while always finding allusions to the elegance and caprice of the Russian Imperial Court. The opening allegro had a wonderfully confident swing to it, tossing any of its turgidity to the winds, and cultivated a beguiling sweet songfulness before finishing with a burst of real frisson. I must remark on how well the rhythmic complexities of this movement were handled. The Adagio started from grace and elegance, with telling contributions from Pavlovsky and Amanda Forsyth, moving into its passion with conviction. The Allegretto mixed gorgeous unison playing with enticing playfulness. A Dvořákian gait was established in the finale, with enviable rhythmic spring, and full of all the right type of bucolic delight and lyricism. It ended in a flourish of glory.

A major inspiration of this concert was hearing the ensemble’s magnificent sound: violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s strong, clean and sweet projection, always anchoring the lyrical line so convincingly; his tonal integration with partner Sergei Bresler; the beautifully precise, open projection of cellist Kyril Zlotnikov, complementing the tight, sculpted lines of Amanda Forsyth; and the two gorgeous violas, the tonal resonance and beautifully turned execution of Ori Kam meshing distinctively with the sharper pungency of Pinchas Zukerman.

The encore was a transcription from a Lensky aria in Eugene Onegin – eloquent, sensual, with just the right hint of caprice to send everyone off in the finest of spirits.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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