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Jerusalem Foursome Glorious in Concord


The Concord Chamber Music Society Sunday recital from the Jerusalem [String] Quartet opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat Major, op. 12. The first movement is introduced with a lilting, classically proportioned 16-measure Adagio that could have been written by Mozart or Haydn. The Jerusalem contingent brought out the dynamic contrasts and the all-important phrasing in the supporting strings beautifully. By the end of the 16-measure introduction, the audience was smitten. An Allegro non tardante ensues, the main theme consisting of a rising fourth and a falling third. Melodious at the outset, the movement nonetheless contains outbursts of energy where the first violin adopts an operatic role. Approximately 3/4 of the way through, the second violin introduces a darker theme; this being one of multiple ways Mendelssohn varies the mood and drama of the movement. The performers understood every emotional state and brought them across through variations in dynamics, tempi and color.

The second movement Canzonetta is delicate and sprightly, based on dance-like themes that recall Mendelssohn’s Ouverture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The players exhibited a restrained tempo (Allegretto), relishing the fragile, yet stately mood. Displays of virtuosity in both upper and lower strings were handled with ease. Particularly delightful was the piu mosso with fleet footed violins performing as one in rapid staccato pianissimo 16th notes. In the expressive slow movement the first violin is again the soloist, although first violin Alexander Pavlovsky seemed to favor the calmer side of the operatic approach. The third movement alternates between calm and fervent, with the quietude of the final pianissimo cadence broken by the two FF chords which open the finale. Here Mendelssohn plays tricks with the tonal centers, opening with two G major chords that hint at the thread of C minor that runs throughout. Thematically we are reminded of the second movement, the composer’s sprightly figurations now turned agitated. Finally, about 3/4 through we return to the home key. Much of the pulsating tension of this movement brings to mind the Mendelssohn Octet written during the same period. Because the foursome exhibits such a warm and uniformly beautiful sound, we would love to hear a cloned Jerusalem X 2 essay the Mendelssohn Octet as the Emerson has done through the miracles of recording.  

German-born Jew Paul Ben-Haim fled the Nazis to settle in British controlled Palestine in the early 1930’s. Although facing enormous challenges as a composer and early settler in Palestine he ultimately became Israel’s most famous composer. While (broadly speaking) the Mendelssohn awarded special place to the first violin, the Ben-Haim provided a wonderful contrast. In his String Quartet No. 1 op., 21 the melodic material is shared and traded back and forth among the instruments. Violist Ori Kim stated the opening theme, maintaining a warm and expressive tone throughout. The cello picks it up at measure 7. Not until m. 19 does the theme get handed to the first violin. The quartet took full opportunity to show off its solo and ensemble skills, each iteration of the theme well matched in phrasing and articulation while also expressing the coloristic and timbral strengths of each instrument. The second movement, full of scurrying 16th notes, recalled the Mendelssohn we had just heard. The continual juxtaposition of major and minor thirds lent a dark and agitated quality, while the composer achieved a percussive effect through directives such as col legno and ponticello. The Largo theme of Movement III summoned the English horn theme of Movement II of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, evoking, as had Dvořák,, wistfulness and nostalgia.

Ben-Haim chose the fourth movement, Allegro commodo, for letting loose his love of folk influences. A lilting theme alternates with harsh, turbulent episodes. The high excitement gives way to a nostalgic recall of the opening theme. But a frenzied, almost anguished dance shatters the amity.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor opens with a brisk, two-bar motif; modified in ways JS Bach would have admired, it remains recognizable throughout the entire composition. Secondary motifs appear but mesh so smoothly with the underpinnings provided by the other instruments as to defy the conventional melody/harmony relationship. In the second movement the two-bar motif from the first appears in its jauntiest form. Unconventional chords, abrupt key changes and cross rhythms create exotic sounds. The players meticulously followed Debussy’s “en dehors” directive by projecting solos “out in front of,” adding one more element to the constantly varying texture. In the fourth movement’s final 30-measure segment the opening motif resounds twice, then follows a series of ascending and descending major and minor thirds played at any one moment by at least three of the instruments. A final ascending run brings the piece, despite itself, to a glorious ending in G major.

The Jerusalem Quartet’s (Alexander Pavlovsky , Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kan, viola; and Cyril Zlotnikov, cello) well thought-out program spanned an enormous range, maintaining unity through several elements. Each piece had a skittish, innovative second movement. Not a minuet and trio as would be heard in a quartet of Haydn or Mozart, but derived from them. Melodic restraint, in the sense of contained motifs rather than lyrical lines was a hallmark of each composition. The quartet proved itself equal to the enormous technical and interpretative challenges they set for themselves and the attentive audience at Concord Academy enjoyed every minute. CCMS consistently presents first rate artists, one of the many excellent local offerings we are privileged to choose from.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

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  1. “CCMS consistently presents first rate artists, one of the many excellent local offerings we are privileged to choose from.” —Amen.

    Comment by Bill Blake — October 10, 2023 at 4:24 pm

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