Serenity and Angst: The Jerusalem Quartet

Jerusalem QT_edited- 3-11-15

As part of the Music@Menlo Winter Series, the Jerusalem String Quartet – Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kam, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello – made a powerful impression on the audience at Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, Sunday, February 22. With music of Haydn, Bartok, and Schumann, the Jerusalem players offered a program that proffered refined beauty and a light heart with music – Bartok’s Fourth Quartet (1928) – that still inspires fear and trembling in practitioners and auditors alike.

The program opened with a spirited reading of Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3 “Rider” (1793), so called for its outer movements, which genially capture canters or gallops in string quartet unison triplets. The lovely second theme enjoyed a more Hungarian or Slavic flavor, rising out of the lower instruments, and thus exposing the plangent tones of both violist and cellist. Second violin Bresler’s melodic line had its moment, rising above the first violin as the music inexorably wended its way to a G Major close. The heart of the music, its moving Largo assai, proceeded rather in the form of a meditative hymn or orison in E Major, a key Beethoven finds consonant after the first storms of his C Minor Piano Concerto. When the main theme inverts, it leads to its trio in an equally unexpected E Minor, made all the more poignant by the Jerusalem’s rich harmonization. Equally witty, the Menuetto inverts its own theme to supply its trio, but this time in the tonic key of G Minor. Off-beat accents and a startling concertante part for first violin Pavlovsky raised the bar in the finale, an Allegro con brio in sonata-form. The many shifts in dynamics already beckon a Romanticism that Beethoven would soon exploit.

More “Hungarian” music ensued, but of an entirely modern, even alienated, sensibility, Bartok’s 1928 Fourth Quartet. Our second violin, Sergei Bresler, suffered a severe coughing fit midway in the opening Allegro and temporarily delayed the performance. But all resumed with the same fiendish intensity as before. This music attempts to balance its uneasy, angst-ridden content with the architectural scheme based on the palindrome. The crux of the five-movement piece lies in Non troppo lento, one of those “night music” expressions of Bartok that refer not so much to the time of day as to an affect that Elie Wiesel best captures in his nightmare memoirs. Some do find in these “nocturnes” a bucolic, pastoral setting. But the stark economy of means and sheer anguished expressivity belie sentimental niceties. True, the cello had some poignant riffs, the second violin likewise making much on the G-string. But the classical contours of the inverted canon did not negate the often abysmal depths to which this music could plunge.

The second and fourth movements, both scherzos of a morbid kind, demand respectively muted and pizzicato bravura, the latter a dark, chamber music “answer” to the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s “fateful” Fourth Symphony. When the texture softened a bit, we might have likened the music to gypsy balalaikas or variants from a Liszt rhapsody. The Jerusalem’s vivid snapping of the strings against their fingerboards had our heads on the rebound. The outer movements bombarded us with semitones, harsh glissandos, energies built from fragments and melodic snippets that hinted at a national or Magyar identity without having announced it boldly, only passionately. When the first violin pitched upward into the stratosphere, we saw the ripples from Edvard Munch’s most famous painting. A degree of cyclicism no less made itself manifest, when the last movement – a heavy stamping dance in Bulgarian rhythms – grappled with the galloping motif from the first movement, the ensuing and complicated texture then conjuring up a jarring amalgam we might associate with Stravinsky.

The joyful, song-laden figures of Robert Schumann, in his A Major Quartet, Op. 41, No. 3 (1842), came as a glorious daybreak after a long night of dreadful note. Schumann dedicated this fine quartet to Felix Mendelssohn, and it serves that composer well as an expression of faith reborn in Nature and human affection. Taking his cue from Haydn, Schumann utilizes a falling fifth as his motto theme, infusing directives “espressivo” and “molto moderato” to sustain the dreamy aura. Zlotnikov’s throaty cello put the period to the coda with his own falling fifth. Schumann enjoys canons – he would invoke the technique again in his Op. 44 Piano Quintet – and he incorporates one as the fourth variation in his Assai agitato second movement. Even if the fifth variant assumes a turbulent series of figures, the music resolves itself in major, serenely affable. Having substituted for the usual scherzo, Schumann proceeds with a rhapsodic Adagio. A more martial impulse did intrude; and here, one might have detected its influence on several intermezzi by acolyte Johannes Brahms. Schumann’s complementary personae, Florestan and Eusebius, rather visited their energies upon the Jerusalem players in the finale, a glowing Allegro molto vivace in (eminently) rondo form. Here, the latent wizardry of violist Ori Kam made its several appearances, inflecting all sorts of adjustments Schumann injects into the florid mix. Pageantry and poetry blended in fine symmetry in this alertly brisk reading, more than a fervent example for the Dvorak and Brahms repertory that would soon contribute to the medium of Romantic chamber music.

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