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Mastery from the Jerusalem Quartet

Wigmore Hall, London, 16.2.2013

Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bressler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)).

By Mark Berry

Wolf – Italian Serenade

Mozart – String Quartet no.22 in B-flat major, KV 589

Smetana – String Quartet no.1 in E minor, ‘From my life’

The Jerusalem Quartet’s latest visit to the Wigmore Hall opened with a sunny performance of Wolf’s Italian Serenade. Full of life, there was, as ever with this quartet, never the slightest hint of routine. Mediterranean sun was to be felt – especially welcome in February – but quite rightly, this was sunlight as remembered from northern Europe. Solo playing, first from Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello, then picked up by his colleagues, was as fine as the ensemble work.

One of Mozart’s Prussian quartets, that in B-flat major, KV 589, followed. Cultivated yet vital, warm yet clear, this was an excellent account, both of the first movement and of the quartet as a whole. Cello solos – the King of Prussia favoured in Mozart’s scoring – were beautifully despatched without standing out unduly: far more a foundation for contrapuntal exploration. An excellent Mozartian balance was struck between ‘late’ simplicity and ‘late’ (Bachian) complexity, both contrapuntal and harmonic. Lyrical elegance was the hallmark of the relatively relaxed slow movement, though how much art conceals art here, both in terms of work and performance. The cello was necessarily first amongst equals, but ensemble was the real thing. A gracious yet far from sedate tempo – just right for ‘Moderato’ – permitted the minuet’s detail to emerge meaningfully, and what detail there is here! With a proto-Beethovenian sense of purpose, this amounted to a well-nigh ideal performance. The finale has one of those very tricky Mozartian openings in which the players must begin in medias res; almost needless to say, it was effortlessly navigated, drawing us into a wonderfully ‘late’ marriage of ebullience and vulnerability, contrapuntal severity and sinuous melody. Every note and every connection between notes was played with evident belief. Schoenberg would have understood – and approved.

Smetana’s first quartet offered quite a change of mood for the second half. Immediately one heard a more Romantic tone, Ori Kam’s opening viola solo richly expressive, likewise the other parts’ responses thereto. Performed on an almost symphonic scale, the development section in particular, the first movement exhibited a proper, indeed thrilling, sense of what was at stake. The ‘Allegro moderato alla polka’ captured perfectly the balance between rusticity and art. Depth of tone in the various solos sometimes had to be heard to be believed. Emotional intensity characterised the slow movement from the outset, that intensity crucially allied to an unerring instinct for harmonic rhythm. Together, those qualities meant that however high the temperature – and sometimes it was high indeed – the music never became over-heated. The finale opened with polished brilliance. If it lacked the weight of previous movements, that is a reflection upon the score rather than the performance: Smetana’s apparent attempt to adopt a Haydnesque strategy, whatever the autobiographical explanation, works less than perfectly, as is confirmed by the more overtly Romantic ending.

As an encore, we heard Shostakovich’s quartet transcription of the Polka from his ballet, The Age of Gold. Coming as it does from the composer’s more experimental youth, it proved far more interesting than most of his subsequent essays for these forces. Certainly the Jerusalem Quartet proved more than equal to its abrupt changes of mood, without imbuing them with inappropriate weight and ‘meaning’.

February 22, 2013

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