Confidence, Animation and Unity from the Jerusalem Quartet at St. John’s Smith Square

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Bartók and Dvořák: Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler [violins], Ori Kam [viola], Kyril Zlotnikov [cello]), St. John’s Smith Square, London, 22.11.2015. (CS)

Haydn: String Quartet in G Op.77 No.1

Bartók: String Quartet No.6

Dvořák: String Quartet in F Op.96 (‘American’)

The founding members of the Jerusalem Quartet have been performing together for over twenty years – and it shows.  During this recital at St John’s Smith Square I was struck by the confidence, animation and remarkable ‘unity’ of the ensemble’s playing.  The four voices were beautifully integrated: leader Alexander Pavlovsky soared lucidly above the well-blended middle voices, while Kyril Zlotnikov’s bass line provided eloquent and rich support.  The lines had individual character and presence but amalgamated to speak with mutual expressivity.  One can sometimes sense a string quartet working hard to perfect the tuning, but with relaxed ease the Jerusalem Quartet found unwaveringly true intonation.  Pavlovsky led with vitality; but he did not have to work too hard as the players seemed instinctively to respond to the nuances of each other’s playing.  The Quartet’s carefully considered phrasing, dynamics and application of vibrato clearly defined and delineated the different musical and expressive ‘worlds’ that the three quartets forming the programme inhabit.  There was a satisfying assurance about the Quartet’s manner of performance, and even when I was surprised, for example by the tempi chosen, I was convinced by the unaffectedness of the delivery.

The Jerusalem Quartet is celebrating its 20th anniversary by presenting a number of special projects, including a complete cycle of Béla Bartók’s six string quartets.  In this recital, the composer’s final quartet was performed; composed in autumn 1939 at the onset of WWII, this was the last work that Bartók completed before leaving his native Hungary for the US.  It is a dark work, written under the shadow of national and personal distress.  When the Nazis occupied Austria in March of 1938, Bartók feared that it was only a matter of time before Hungary was occupied and wrote to his friend and patron, Paul Sacher: ‘There is the imminent danger that Hungary will also surrender to this system of robbery and murder.  How I could then continue to live or work in such a country is inconceivable.’  In addition, the composer’s mother was severely ill at this time: Bartók’s sketches show that he originally intended the finale to be a lively dance, but following his mother’s death he replaced his initial musical ideas with a sorrowful elegy.

Each of the four movements of the quartet begins with a ‘motto’ theme, marked Mesto – simply, ‘sadly’.  Viola player Ori Kam brought an air of almost religious focus and intensity to the first statement of this theme, infusing the sombre melody with melancholy gravity, before the restless explorations and developments of the Vivace swept the stillness aside.  A light-fingered touch alternated with more weighty pronouncements but while the quicksilver transference of the evolving motifs between the voices generated agitation and restlessness, a wide vibrato was employed and the tone was rich.  Dynamics were precise and extreme, the pianissimo passages at times diminishing to quasi-silence; the textures were lucidly articulated and the smallest details clearly audible.

Kyril Zlotnikov’s more extended statement of the ‘motto’ was deeply expressive, the cellist’s tone shining with warm in contrast to the muted upper parts and the tension created by the tremolo of the second violin and viola.  The rhythms of the subsequent Marcia lurched lopsidedly, a grotesque and acid parody of aggressive militarism.  In the movement’s central episode, when the cello’s Hungarian-coloured melody is accompanied by the strumming pizzicatos of the viola and the fluttering of the cimbalom-like violins, I thought that more strain and anxiety might have been generated by the cello’s high register and the strange discords generated by the slightly misaligned accompanying gestures – the music feels somewhat ‘out-of-tune’ and ‘out-of-time’, but the Jerusalem Quartet did not emphasise the disturbing quality of the passage which seems almost to mock the composer’s own homeland.

Similarly, the Burletta might have left a more bitter taste.  The Mesto was presented with gentleness and delicacy, and the folk-inspired trio section was a melodious reprieve from the jesting material of the ‘burlesque’, but with the violins playing a quarter-tone flat and the motifs distorted and derisive, I felt that the movement needed more ‘bite’ to bring forth its satirical savagery.  However, the superb tuning and blending of sound in the final Molto tranquillo created an inexorable, searching quality, through the intense crescendos and fainting diminuendos, which was deeply moving.  In the final bars, the viola’s forlorn re-statement of the Mesto theme from the opening movement served as a poignant reflection on the intervening explorations and emotions; it faded inconclusively into silence, leaving just the violins’ muted, bare fifth, and the cello’s brushed pizzicato chords.

Speaking of the Quartet’s approach to performing Bartók, in the San Francisco Classical Voice in February this year, Ori Kam stated, ‘What we bring to this music is to play it like Haydn; we try to play it quite lightly’.  The audience had the opportunity to judge for themselves, as the recital opened with Haydn’s G Major Quartet Op.77 No.1.  Playing with a clean, fresh and elegant tone, the Jerusalem Quartet made the opening of the Allegro moderato immediately engaging; dynamic contrasts were emphasised, the rhetorical exchanges were vigorous but relaxed, the staccato triplets light-hearted, and Pavlovsky’s climbing phrases were radiant and eloquent.  The unison declaration which opens the Adagio again confirmed the Quartet’s superb intonation and unity of expression.  The tempo was not overly slow, and a full vibrato, particularly by Zlotnikov, gave stature and solemnity to the theme.  As the first violin rose and the tessitura expanded there was a sense of grandeur, though this was countered by the darker mood which was effected by a move to the minor tonality, and a wonderfully veiled pianissimo in the central section where the cello initiates a tentative, rising sequence.  The rhythmic fluidity of the Menuetto was well controlled, and the Trio pushed the pace still faster; but, while there was urgency the punctuating repeated-note motif and successful downbow strokes were never abrasive – the latter were ‘answered’ by impressively light, rapid up bows by the first violin.  Playfulness combined with sophistication in the final Presto; the forte passages were never forced and the phrasing was refined.

I found the final work on the programme less satisfying interpretatively, as the Jerusalem Quartet chose to emphasise the lyricism of Dvořák’s ever-popular ‘American’ String Quartet at the expense, I felt, of some of the music’s rhythmic exuberance – although given the joy and tranquillity evoked by the second subject, approached by a delightful rubato, of the Allegro ma no troppo one cannot really complain!  Through the developments and contrasts of the first movement the Quartet maintained a mellifluous quality.  This tonal sweetness also characterised the opening of the Lento, although once again, I’d have liked a more ‘aching’ sense of yearning.  As with the slow movement of Haydn’s quartet, the tempo was fairly brisk, with the lower parts creating propulsion.  Pavlovsky’s soaring E-string melody was thrillingly luminescent.  The Molto vivace effectively contrasted the impetuousness and unpredictability of the scherzo’s dancing rhythms with the more reflective, settled homophonic central section, while the Finale was exuberant and carefree.

What was so striking about this recital was the way that Jerusalem Quartet combined a truly disciplined approach with exciting expressive freedom – and this was nowhere more apparent than in the encore, the Minuet and Trio  from Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, which brought brightness and warmth into St John’s just as we could see the sun setting through the window behind.

Claire Seymour       

The Jerusalem Quartet returns to London in June 2016 to perform four recitals at the Wigmore Hall; the programmes will include Bartók’s Third, Fourth and Sixth Quartets, as well as chamber music by Brahms with clarinettist Sharon Kam and pianist Sir András Schiff.

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