The Jerusalem Quartet Achieve Sheer Perfection in French Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Bartók and Ravel: Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 18.6.2016 (AS)

Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, Kreutzer Sonata
Bartók: String Quartet No. 4, BB95
Ravel: String Quartet in F

You would expect a work based on a Tolstoy novella in which a jealous husband murders his pianist wife after suspecting her of having an affair with a violinist partner to be pretty stormy and Janáček’s music certainly gives performers plenty of scope for dramatic expression. This quality was definitely supplied in full measure by the Jerusalem Quartet, whose superlative technique and variety and depth of tone were at once evident. And yet, despite the fact that the players successfully captured the quickly changing moods of the music, its passion and its urgent sense of communication, the playing didn’t seem quite natural: the composer’s quicksilver darts, the mercurial changes, were conveyed with a slightly strenuous feeling, the rubato responsively applied, but not quite as to the manner born. This is perhaps being a little unfair on the players, for overall it was a very fine performance of an elusive masterwork.

Bartók’s more directly expressed acerbities seemed to be more easily assimilated by the players. In this work particularly, where the textures sometimes become very dense, especially in the first of the five movements, the positioning of the viola on the right of the ensemble led to a better balance than would have been the case if this somewhat reticent instrument had been placed more conventionally between the second violin and cello. Especially admirable was the manner in which the players conveyed a dramatically scurrying quality in the second movement – aptly described in the programme note as “secret whisperings”. Also of particular note was the poignantly expressive solo cello in the work’s only slow movement (the middle one), and the precise ensemble in the fourth movement’s pizzicato (which surely was in the composer’s mind when he wrote the second movement of his Music for strings, percussion and celesta a decade later). The characteristically Bartókian whirling dance rhythms of the last movement were superbly conveyed to bring a most admirable performance to a satisfying conclusion.

Ravel’s Quartet is not susceptible to too many variations of interpretation if its peculiar qualities of slight melancholy and exquisite refinement are to be properly conveyed. It’s not easy to describe the sheer perfection of the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance. Everything but everything was just as it should be – acutely observed changes of pulse in the opening movement that still preserved the forward-leaning quality of the music’s gently unfolding development; the precise rhythmic articulation of the second movement’s piquant pizzicato rhythms; the hushed, intimate atmosphere of the slow movement, leading to a perfectly nuanced and beautifully balanced finale. My apologies, dear reader, but it’s not easy to avoid extravagant prose in reaction to such playing.

As an encore, the slow movement of the Debussy Quartet was performed to such perfection as to make one wish that the whole work could have been heard.

Alan Sanders 

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