A wonderful concert from beginning to end from the Jerusalem Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Prokofiev, and Brahms: Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavolvsky, Sergei Bressler [violins], Ori Kam [viola], Kyril Zlotnikov [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.5.2023. (MB)

Jerusalem Quartet © Felix Broede.

Mozart – String Quartet No.21 in D major, KV 575
Prokofiev – String Quartet No.2 in F major, Op.92
Brahms – String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51 No.1

A wonderful concert from beginning to end. The Jerusalem Quartet treated Mozart as he should be treated: the players’ tone rich and cultivated. Opening tone would not have been taken for the Amadeus Quartet, yet would surely have been recognised by them. Fineness of tone was certainly no end in itself, though; it enlivened and enabled Mozart’s structures from the first movement onward in coming to life as form. There was rhetoric, where required, but this again was properly integrated, not as far too often a substitute for formal communication. For above all, every phrase was imbued with a sense of life and was formally directed. The cliché of the Classical string quartet as conversation may be too worn by now, but it seemed born anew, rejuvenated by a true sense of the operatic solo, duet, trio, and of course quartet. The Andante breathed the evening air of Mozart’s Salzburg serenades, albeit refracted through a late(r) combination of the vital and the reflective: Così-like, one might say. Kyril Zlotnikov eagerly rose to the regal challenge of Frederick William II’s part: first among equals; or, as his uncle might have had it, first servant of the ensemble. That was all the more so in a stylish minuet, propelled both harmonically and rhythmically, both of the eighteenth century and peering beyond it. Brief withdrawal of vibrato in the finale, for expressive rather than dogmatic reasons, made its point in an account as full of life as I have ever heard. Intimations of Beethoven were clear, emerging from score and performance in the most natural, effortless way imaginable.

The first movement of Prokofiev’s Second Quartet sounded strikingly folk-influenced, which was not to say folklike (an important distinction, I think, both in work and performance). Origins, putative or imaginary, were relished and yet transformed into something new. Prokofiev trademarks were all there: melodic profusion, side-slipping, even the occasional grotesquerie of old, in a performance that evidently relished the composer, his language, and his individual approach to this hallowed genre. A rapt, even visionary opening to the central Adagio emerged from the intensity of the players’ encounter with the score. The second section’s oddball humour came as release, final darkness offering similarly consequent contrast. The finale likewise emerged out of, yet also in, its predecessor’s shadows, in almost operatic fashion, perhaps filmic too. One could almost see the scenes, of whatever kind, the music might have portrayed — not unlike, say, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Superficial similarities with Bartók served mostly – rightly, in my view – to underline how different his music is. Zlotnikov’s extraordinary cadenza incited a truly impassioned climax from all, before the composer led them on a quite different path – how typical of him – to conclusion.

Taut urgency, not least in more lyrical passages, was apparent from the outset of Brahms’s First Quartet. One felt his struggle in the first movement and beyond, not least his struggle with Beethoven, motivic and otherwise. This is C minor, after all. The intensity of its close was as if I had never heard it before, prior to subsiding to the uneasiest of peace. There was more rapt, if far from untroubled, lyricism to be heard in Brahms’s second movement. Arguably more idiomatic than Prokofiev’s, it is certainly more typical, if such writing can ever truly be considered ‘typical’. Haunted by a host of German Romantic ghosts, musical and perhaps extramusical, it now placed Schubert first among equals. If that were decidedly ambiguous consolation, the post-Schumann darkness of the scherzo led in the opposite direction, to a chiaroscuro the more wondrous the closer one listened. Its trio offered relief of sorts, yet such relief was immediately complicated, not least metrically, presenting Haydn as an ‘as if…’. Further turns of the screw in the finale ushered in a torrential and ultimately tragic outpouring of absolute finality.

As an encore, the Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op.20 No.5, provided sunny contrast, albeit a ray of winter sunshine on the cusp of spring. Poise proved the key, rather than a contrast, to its expressive riches.

Mark Berry

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