Until Saturday evening in Jordan Hall, I knew the Jerusalem Quartet only through two of its recordings, the recent Yiddish Caberet and a luminous Debussy/Ravel disc. It is my pleasure to say the ensemble sounded even better live for the Celebrity Series of Boston
The Quartet’s members are Alexander Pavlosvsky and Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kam, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello. Founded in 1993, the quartet has retained the same players, with the exception of the violist Ori Kam, who joined in 2010, stepping in for Amihai Grosz, who then became principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic. the new York times described the foursome’s warm, deep-throated sound and a precise balance of voices as “a single instrument with 16 strings.” The Jerusalem Quartet records for Hyperion, maintains a strenuous touring schedule, and, to this listener’s ears, sounds as good as any quartet currently playing. There is certainly no better first violinist. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov plays Jacqueline du Pré’s Giovanni Battista Ruggieri (1710) loaned to the artist by Daniel Barenboim.
The evening began with Haydn’s (1797) Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2 “Quinten” (“Fifths”). Haydn has been one of the Jerusalem’s calling cards and the ensemble has won prizes and international recognition for recordings of the first string quartet master. This piece’s nickname fcomes from its use of an opening descending motif of the Allegro first movement, whose first and second pairs of notes are spaced a fifth apart. We are immediately thrust into drama and darkness. The trio of the third movement, the canonic “Witch’s Minuet” (Hexenmenuett) was memorably fun. One could hear why musicologist Donald Tovey called it “clowns dancing with flat feet.” The last movement prances along, punctuated by violin harmonics, a peasant dance in the gypsy style. What a pleasure to hear this gem played to such perfection.
Violist Misha Amory has written well about Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 from 1928:
Everything about the piece betrays Bartók’s obsession with mirror-images and symmetry, a hallmark of his mature style. In every movement one hears a melody in one voice, which is answered by the same melody upside-down in another voice. Elsewhere there are abundant examples of a motif answered by its duplicate on a different pitch, echoed back across the quartet. Once in a while a melody is even replied to by its retrograde: the same melody played backwards. These contrapuntal games are hardly unique to Bartók among composers, but he saturated this music with them to an unusual extent. The obsession with symmetry, imitation and mirror-reflection is so omnipresent that it virtually defines his style during these years.
Nor is the pursuit of symmetry confined to local neighborhoods: the entire, five-movement layout of the quartet is symmetrical as well. Bartók cast the piece in an “arch form,” much as he did later in the Fifth Quartet and the Concerto for Orchestra. That is, he coupled the first movement with the fifth movement, and the second movement with the fourth movement, with the third movement standing alone as the work’s solitary capstone. The paired movements share various characteristics: basic soundscape, motivic material, and emotional heft.
The outer movements are both lively, energetic and bold. The first movement, on the face of it, might seem somewhat more serious, developing its material in an orderly and considered fashion; one might even say that it is forbiddingly heavy in its dense textures and its forests of semitones. At the same time, though, there is an enormous energy in this movement’s activity, and it has a positive, not a destructive, aspect; with every imitation, every reflected melody, every exclamatory chord, one hears the verve of new creation, of musical DNA being mapped and remapped. Central to the movement is a galloping six-note idea, consisting of three rising chromatic notes followed by three faster falling ones, which is first heard about ten bars in. This “motto” idea returns in the last movement and binds the piece together.
The Jerusalem Quartet has recorded the complete Bartók quartets, and it showed.I particularly liked the gently creeping night music of the slow movement, the centerpiece of five movements written in Bartok’s signature palindromic form. The quartet brought out Stravinsky-esque metric shifts and off-beat accents in the first movement. The inner movements are the most delightful — a restless, questing Prestissimo in the second movement, with mutes on, and an astounding variety of plucked sounds in the fourth movement.
According to Susan Halpern, “Brahms may have written 20 or more quartets over two decades before he allowed his first two to be published.” Too bad he was so insecure and self critical to have left us but four. The Jerusalemites gave Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1 a rapturous, exuberant traversal, with perfectly balanced ensemble, panache and polish. I left seriously and completely impressed.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.