The Jerusalem Quartet and friends play Brahms and Schoenberg

Brahms and Schoenberg: Jerusalem Quartet and friends (Alexander Pavolovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)  Ori Kam, Yuri Zhislin (violas) Kyril Zlotnikov, Adrian Brendel (violoncelli)). Wigmore Hall, London, 7.5.2011 (MB)

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4

Brahms – String Sextet in B-flat major, op.18

The Jerusalem Quartet has failed to disappoint me yet in a number of visits to the Wigmore Hall; this concert was to prove no exception. Here the players were joined by violist Yuri Zhislin (1993 BBC Young Musician of Year) and cellist Adrian Brendel. Since I last heard the quartet, Ori Kam has succeeded Amihai Grosz as violist. I noted a year ago the excellence of Kam’s performance in the well-nigh impossible viola part of Le marteau sans maître, conducted by Boulez himself. On the evidence of the present performance, Kam has achieved what one might have thought impossible, proving a more than worthy successor to Grosz, who is now principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic (and who also shone in a recent London concert).

I could not help but wonder whether the reversal of the two items in the programme, announced immediately before the concert, was an attempt to stem potential early departures occasioned by the dread name of Arnold Schoenberg; there were certainly bewildering groans to be heard upon that announcement. Imagine, in 2011, or even in 1911, objecting to Verklärte Nacht! This performance ought at any rate to have converted any lingering dissenters. It did not always conform to my preconceived notions about the work, but why should it? Whenever I wondered whether the players were moving a little too close to Straussian tone poem, ironically away from Brahms, the excellence of their performance disquieted any fears – and made me wonder anew at quite how closely Schoenberg’s essay in so ‘absolute’ a form as the string sextet follows Richard Dehmel’s verse. One does not need to know the latter to listen to the former. An odd thing is that, even when one knows the poetry well, one can forget it in the midst of performance; not here though, for I was constantly put in mind not only of Dehmel’s words but of their musical sublimation. More than once Tristan came to mind; this was a struggle to be understood dramatically as well as tonally – just like that world-historical transition in the second string quartet. Occasional – and I do mean occasional – fraying mattered not at all; if anything, it reminded one of the players’ and, more to the point, Schoenberg’s humanity.

An unusually slow opening, or so it seemed, contrasted strongly with ensuing passion. This, it seemed, was to be a Mahlerian performance, a sextet that encompassed the world. Sweetness of tone did not preclude properly febrile tension in passages that undoubtedly look forward to Schoenberg’s subsequent quartets. (We really need to hear the Jerusalem Quartet in those!) Kam’s beautiful rich arco tone contrasted with Zhislin’s searing pizzicato. Generous cello vibrato from Kyrill Zlotnikov was perfectly gauged to provide warmth at the turning point of sextet and verse. Leader Alexander Pavlovsky’s sweet violin tone emerged as transfiguration (Verklärung) itself. What emerged triumphantly, perhaps surprisingly so in so ‘pictorial’ a performance, was the true sense of quartet music writ large for six players, sextet form proving as much a forum for interaction and reaction as the quartet. Individual personality was enhanced, not precluded: let no one say chamber music is apolitical. Climaxes sent shivers down the spine. This was not merely an excellent performance; it was a special performance.

Brahms’s glorious sextet, which I have always found far easier to warm to than his quartets, received an equally fine reading. The players managed well throughout the performance that tricky yet necessary balancing act between Classical (the first movement’s opening bars) and Romantic (the response). Brahms without rich mahogany sound is not Brahms at all, whatever rebarbative ‘authenticists’ might claim; ‘rightness’ of tonal quality here permitted one, Janus-like or rather Brahms-like, both to look backward and forward through musical history. There was, moreover, an equal ‘rightness’ to be heard when it came to phrasing; one almost did not notice it, so natural did it sound – art concealing art. An impeccable sense of structure was married to Romantic passion, enhancing both, so that one might marvel anew at Brahms’s astonishing craftsmanship and feeling. There were especially heart-rending solos to be heard from Zlotnikov and Kam: melancholy perhaps, but never, in Nietzsche’s malicious barb, the ‘melancholy of impotence’.

I was a little taken aback, yet utterly convinced, by the depth of Schubertian pathos to the slow movement, which proved ardent, impassioned, and based upon true, harmonically-grounded strength of purpose, defiance even. The sheer strangeness of the major-mode drone variation, whatever precedent it might have in Haydn, shone through. It was Beethoven, though, who immediately came to the fore in the scherzo, though the humour, perhaps belying Brahms’s reputation, was rather less gruff in nature. Metrical dislocation both looked back to Beethoven and indeed to the minuet of Don Giovanni, an opera beloved of Brahms, but also forward to the Second Viennese School, Brahms’s closest successors. (Someone who claims to ‘understand’ Brahms but not Schoenberg is listening to neither.)  The opening opposing trios of the finale evinced Mozartian charm, yet in a nostalgic, arguably tragic, vein: Mozart’s reconciliations can be no more – just as in Schubert. This movement balanced, as did the performance as a whole, battle hard won and vital affirmation.

Mark Berry