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Fanfare Music Magazine

...Olympian Mozart who smiles through the tears.

By Jerry Dubins

The first time I listened to this, I loved it; the second time, not so much. But the third time, I loved it again. I think I've collected all but one of the Jerusalem Quartet's recordings, and every one of them has only further confirmed my belief that this Israeli ensemble is, technically at least, on a par with the Emerson and two or three other top string quartets before the public today.

What I loved about these performances the first time through was their sheer beauty reflected in a surface veneer undisturbed by the slightest ripple in the tonal fabric. These musicians play and breathe as one with a perfection of intonation, articulation, dynamic gradation, bow pressure, vibrato, and phrasing that I'm in awe of and that other ensembles must envy.

What gave me pause the second time through was their sheer beauty, undisturbed surface veneer, and a technical perfection that made this ensemble sound like the product of some artificial intelligence. They sounded too clean, too well groomed, and too above the fray to be soiled by anything emotionally demonstrative, as if shedding a tear might make their mascara run.

What I finally came to love once again the third time through was the Olympian Mozart who smiles through the tears. It became evident that the Jerusalem's players believe strongly enough in Mozart to know instinctively that his music needs no help in expressing itself, and that the highest respect one can pay it is to play the written notes as perfectly as possible. The result is not, as you might expect, performances that are bland and characterless, but sound instead as if they are coming straight from the mind of the creator to our ears. In other words, the intermediary-i.e., the players-simply disappear.

In the past, I've observed that Mozart's string quartets are great music, but that compared to Haydn's efforts in the medium they're not great quartets. There's something about Mozart's spacing of the voices that seems to work against transparency; and to the player, the nature of his passagework under the fingers can feel awkward. The result in so many recordings and live performances I've heard is a certain opaqueness of texture. It was in part the ability to overcome this that led me to submit rave reviews of the Klenke Quartet's traversal of Mozart's "Haydn" quartets in Fanfare 28:5, 30:1, and 30:5, noting "a crystalline purity and transparency to the Klenke's ensemble sound that clarifies Mozart's somewhat opaque textural voicing." In 29:6, Mortimer H. Frank had similarly positive things to say about one of the Klenke's volumes in the series.

<p>Until now, the Klenke would have been my top recommendation-and I still regard it very highly-but having heard the Jerusalem in the three headlined works, I think I'm prepared to retract my opinion about the lack of transparency in Mozart's string quartet writing. There is a degree of clarity to the Jerusalem's playing, undoubtedly aided by Harmonia Mundi's superb engineering, that lays bare the minutest details in the inner voices and that exposes in sharp relief the harmonic underpinning in the cello. And all of this is accomplished essentially by the players doing nothing other than playing the notes. Non-intervention results in the greatest instrumentality of all, allowing Mozart to speak for himself.

Thus far, the Jerusalem Quartet seems to be sidestepping the undertaking of complete cycles, preferring to tantalize us with "beginnings." Do two discs of Haydn quartets herald a Haydn cycle, or two discs of Shostakovich a Shostakovich cycle? Who knows? Then there are the one-offs of Schubert and now Mozart. Like bees pollinating flowers in seemingly random patterns, the Jerusalem Quartet produces beautiful blossoms as a signature of its brief visit. And with each new album, we can only hope that this one will be more than just a flyby.

This most recent release of Mozart quartets initiates what could be a most interesting cycle, containing as it does one work each from the composer's early efforts in the medium-third in the series of the so-called "Milanese" Quartets, dating from 1772-73, the C Major, K 157-one from the so-called "Haydn" series, the "Hunt," K 458, dating from 1784-and one from the final set of three "Prussian" Quartets, the middle one, K 589, dating from 1790, the composer's penultimate quartet. Wishful thinking sees similarly programmed future releases. But meanwhile, don't wait. Acquire this CD at once.

March 25, 2012

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