The Brahms Festival with the Jerusalem Quartet

CanadaCanada Brahms: Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bressler, violins, Ori Kam, viola, Kyril Zlotnikov, cello); Inon Barnatan, piano, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, Sharon Kam, clarinet, Vancouver Playhouse, 19-21.3.2014

Brahms: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2
String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 67
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34
Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111
Sonata for Cello and piano in E minor, Op. 38
Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No.2
Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 108

This three-night festival was a rare and exciting collaboration between Vancouver’s two most distinguished chamber music organizations, the Vancouver Recital Society and the Friends of Chamber Music, and truly brought up some nostalgia for both organizations.  The 50th anniversary celebration of the latter in 1998 was indeed a Brahms festival while the performers — featuring the Jerusalem Quartet — rekindled the unique enthusiasm of VRS’s Summer Chamber Music Festivals of a decade ago.  The peak of this quartet’s early association was a performance of a complete Shostakovich quartet cycle in 2006, stunningly well received. The Jerusalem Quartet is of course all grown up now and is a magnificent, world-renowned ensemble, collaborating here with clarinetist Sharon Kam, pianist Inon Barnatan and violist Hsin-Yun Huang in Brahms’ three string quartets, the piano, clarinet and string quintets and three sonatas that showcased the individual talents of the quartet’s members.  The quartet has just recently recorded the Brahms Clarinet Quartet and String Quartet No. 2 for Harmonia Mundi.

Seeing an ensemble perform for three nights in a row is often more rewarding than seeing them in a single sitting.  Here, one could get a better feel for some of the Jerusalem Quartet’s tendencies and the sheer range of musical projections they are capable of.  What seemed invariant is their sensitivity and expressiveness, but whether that came out in an intimate, probing and tender way or a very muscular, powerful, and passionate way appeared to vary evening by evening. Interestingly, all the best performances seemed to come on the second night.

The outright winner was in fact the Brahms’ often-neglected String Quintet, Op. 111, with violist Hsin-Yun Huang, a performance that was probably the best I have ever heard.  The difficulty for Brahms’ two String Quintets is in not knowing whether they are really ‘large’ quartets or ‘small’ sextets.  This interpretation chose the latter (op. 36 probably being the model), giving the work considerable breath and showing a wonderful patience in exposition. The tonal blend was impeccable.  The opening movement flowed beautifully, capturing the rise and fall in phrases most naturally. The second also found unusual depth, and the charm and tenderness in the following movement set the stage for a compelling finale of great motion and, more important, great joy.  Here I almost had the same feeling of unencumbered delight and happiness that one finds in Mendelssohn’s Octet.  The music seemingly just played itself!

The second really distinguished performance was the Brahms Quartet No. 2.  When the Jerusalem Quartet played this for us in 2011, I remarked that, at points, they were aiming for something ‘too big’ or ‘trying for too much’.  Now I find everything almost perfect both in scale and Brahmsian feeling, so sensitively played and intelligently integrated overall, its lyrical flow emerging so fluently.  It would be difficult to find a more communicative account of the Andante second movement.  The ensemble seemed to have less stylistic certainty with the other two quartets, although they featured many moments of lovely playing.  The performance of Quartet No. 3, the most uncompromising of all of them, seemed to aim for greater flow and beauty, and less sinew, than normally.  I don’t think I have ever heard a more refined and sweeter treatment of the often brusque opening movement.  But as we progressed, with consistently romantic shaping of phrases (especially in the first violin), buoyant and flexible rhythms, rustic allusions and an airiness of texture, the more the playing turned out to be Dvorakian rather than firmly Brahmsian, beautiful as it was.  Even the quiet pizzicato passage at the end of the work had a soft ‘dumka’ feel.  The last two movements of Quartet No. 1 had somewhat the same character, being almost too free and bouncy.  Brahms truly is a romantic composer but not every type of romantic expression fits with his tight structural and rhythmic demands.

The sonata performances highlighted the accomplishment and tonal beauty of the quartet’s members.  Inon Barnatan accompanied, and added much sparkle and detail to all of them.  The only down-side to this formidable pianist is that he is not particularly warm or long-phrased, and sometimes his eagerness and hypersensitivity undermines a natural Brahmsian flow and relaxation. The best performance here was the Cello Sonata, Op. 38, showing tremendous commitment and involvement.  Kyril Zlotnikov was by turns romantic, passionate and eloquent, always showing such beautiful phrasing and control, tonally often ravishing. Alexander Pavlovsky’s traversal of the last Violin Sonata, Op. 108 was also a rewarding and powerful experience, although at points I felt that slightly more moderate tempos would have allowed better technical address and more of his lyrical side to show.   One did not have to listen to the Viola Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2 for long to appreciate Ori Kam’s strong, burnished tone.  This was a creditable performance overall but missing some of the wistfulness of late Brahms; Inon Barnatan’s playing also seemed too forceful and propulsive at times. Possibly the alternative scoring for clarinet gets closer to the heart of this work.

Of the two bigger works, the Clarinet Quintet and Piano Quintet, there is no doubt the Jerusalem Quartet has long battled with how to interpret the former. In 2009, they gave us one of the longest and softest performances of this work I can remember (with clarinetist Martin Fröst). So beautiful in its quiet way; sensitive and intimate.   But, without having contrasting sinew and thrust, it was probably too gloomy and sentimental overall.  This time, they took the Clarinet Quintet almost completely in the other direction, being muscular, passionate, and super-charged, sometimes almost expressing the angst of, say, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.  To hear Sharon Kam’s beautifully rich, firm tone and lovely articulation amidst the weight and power of this (almost orchestral) playing by the quartet was a ‘show’ in itself.  But the consistent attempts to heighten drama and projection while still maintaining slow speeds obviously challenged the character of the work.  Rather than being a model of lyrically-restrained beauty with a thrusting undercurrent, the opening movement opened out into ripe, gloriously passionate string textures with feelings that were often overwrought. The wonderful melancholy and wistful musing of the following Adagio were replaced with an almost calculated feeling of trauma and pain, and the ominous tremolos of the last movement, rather than being premonitions at one remove, were projected with almost Mahlerian amplitude and immediacy.  I am not sure that this is the interpretative answer either, and I am sure the Jerusalem Quartet would agree with me. Their distinguished 2013 recording actually has many features in common with the earlier viewpoint and probably sits about half way between the two.

The Brahms Piano Quintet is one of the great closing works for chamber music concerts or festivals, having just the right power and excitement in its last two movements to carry everything home in a satisfying way.  After a somewhat variable start, we did get all the drive and rhythmic thrust we could ask for, indeed sending everyone home happy and satisfied.

Six works, plus three solo contributions, is quite a lot to ask from one ensemble in three days.  Obviously, not all of the performances were equally successful, but what I liked throughout this festival is that the Jerusalem Quartet openly shared everything they had with us: performances that were clearly finished products, their experiments, and other attempts that were less developed.  Perhaps this is because the Jerusalem Quartet is in a sense ‘family’, having been strongly supported by the Vancouver Recital Society right from its birth-pangs. And if children can’t openly share everything with family, then who can they share it with?  Certainly, the one thing that no family member could deny is just how much the Jerusalem Quartet have advanced in the past decade, both sonically and interpretatively.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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