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The Philadelphia Inquirer

A quartet that belongs in a higher realm

By David Patrick Stearns

String quartet fatigue is bound to set in this time of the season. So far, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has brought in 12, all quite reputable and some truly exceptional. Overlooking the Philadelphia debut of the Jerusalem Quartet on Monday would have been easy but unfortunate, since this extraordinary foursome arrived at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater in a zone of its own.

Individual virtues included airtight, minimum-vibrato chord blends in Haydn's String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 ("Sunrise"), the use of rhythm to define musical gestures with an almost blinding clarity in Shostakovich's String Quartet in A-flat (Op. 118), and the cohesion brought to Smetana's willful mixture of searing introspection and cheerful folk song in the String Quartet in E minor ("From My Life"). Taste and concentration were obvious at every turn. None of that really explains why the performances were special, but the group's biography contains a few hints.

The quartet is named for its sponsors (which include the Jerusalem Music Centre), and the members' average age is 25. But the three Russians and one Israeli have been playing in the same lineup for 12 years, since they were teenagers, and spent their compulsory military service in Israel together to continue playing concerts.

Thus, the group's musical observations have the freshness and earnestness of youthful discovery - projected with great vigor and clarity and tempered with the wisdom that comes with accumulated years of experience. You just want to put a bell jar over the members to isolate them from corruption - particularly during the Haydn quartet, which is rarely revealed with so much sunshine and wit.

However, worldly insights are essential in Shostakovich's sly, secretive Op. 118, whose power often lies in what it doesn't say, with its doggerel melodies and imitation police sirens ambushing you from within the quartet's textures. Some performers investigate the piece as if looking for unmarked graves. The Jerusalem Quartet found meaning in the music's masklike poker face, constantly turning questions of subtext back to the audience, as if to say, "So what do you think?" That will keep you coming back to the music, as if any prompting were needed with performers like this.

May 4, 2005

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