The soft-edged, biteless sounds pouring creamily forth from the Jordan Hall stage during the Jerusalem Quartet’s Saturday night Celebrity Series performance of Haydn’s Quartet Opus 76 No. 4 (late 1790s), both ensemble and individual attacks and releases, made me wonder whether there are enough old-time Haydn quartet recordings online to judge whether an approach the opposite of today’s incisive, wit-observant style was ever in vogue. The rendition of this work was not fun to listen to. Forget Haydn’s winged play; I feared the ornery 65-year-old composer would hover to ask, Hey, where’d my comic vehemence and crisp effects go? Seeking out Haydn playing by the Flonzaley, Lener, Busch, and Pascal quartets did confirm comparatively more marbling then than now, but not like this. (To be fair and balanced I mention that the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler thought the Haydn “the most compellingly realized offering on the program.”)
That “Sunrise” quartet famously starts with Haydn’s depiction of dawn unfolding. Shostakovich’s quartet 12 (1968), which followed, famously offers the 11 semitones of the series (one full measure of cello) before cadencing to the tonic D-flat, for a suitably wintry feel from this composer, also then in his 60s. I love all Shostakovich chamber music, at least when in the mood, and the Jerusalem’s ripe flow did not detract from the piece’s gray power and depth. They dug, exposing Russian roots; first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky bounced out of his chair. (For some reason the group is more pleasing to watch than most, especially cellist Kyril Zlotnikov’s expressive hands.) I eagerly bought one of their Shostakovich CDs afterward. And the encore—the good-sized audience at this premiere appearance loved everything, with vigor—was a trenchant and amusing reading of Shostakovich’s arrangement of a polka from one of his operas.
It’s not clear why the Brahms quartets don’t have quite the appeal of the rest of his chamber music, but from conversation with other fans I know it’s not just my flawed taste. Perhaps length of line and strength of emotion have something to do with the lack of gelling? The Jerusalem’s Brahms Opus 51 No. 2 Quartet (1873, Brahms around 40) perfectly matched their bronzed, luscious elegance, and was matched by it, corners not excessively rounded and a snapped violin string notwithstanding. It did seem their sense of Brahms’s tricky rhythms wasn’t the supplest, and the performance rhythmically often had a squared-off feel to it.
In their BMInt interview, new violist Ori Kam cited the Emerson Quartet and Isaac Stern as Jerusalem influences, although the driven tension of the former and the pleasantly astringent sound of the latter were not in evidence at this Celebrity Series concert. Given the Jerusalem’s strongly positive reception, maybe a penchant for patina will become the new style, and our golden age of string quartets will feature more golden tones.