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The Jerusalem String Quartet (Alexander Pavlosky and Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kam, viola; Kyril Zlotnikov, cello); Pinchas Zukerman, viola, Amanda Forsyth, cello: Works by Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky, Chan Centre, October 14, 2018.

by Geoffrey Newman

It is rare to have a full concert of string sextets, and it is rare indeed to find playing as beautiful as that provided by the Jerusalem Quartet and their two exalted collaborators, violist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth. Radiant warmth and feeling flowed everywhere in this concert, starting from Richard Strauss’s lovely Sextet from Capriccio and ending with the energy and romantic ardour of Tchaikovsky’s late sextet ‘Souvenir de Florence’. In between was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht , also painted in luxuriant colours, though here some sharper, more distilled contours might not have been out of place. It was a particular joy to see the Jerusalem Quartet in its fullest splendour: the Vancouver Recital Society sponsored the ensemble literally from its birth-pangs two decades ago.

There can be few pieces of theatre music that rival the beauty and refinement of the sextet from Capriccio. It is played offstage at the beginning of the opera, as a prelude to a grand debate over the merits of music vs. poetry as the supreme art form. Clearly the discussion cannot be neutral when such enticing music is already playing – and its presence could hardly fail to persuade us too, especially when performed with as much sensitivity and eloquence as it was here. The feeling and beautiful shape in Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin lines established a captivating lyrical flow and sense of yearning from the outset. And the lovely Straussian shadings just kept coming. The ensemble cohered as one mind, showing splendid control over dynamics, and creating a fully integrated glow over the work’s 13-minute length.

The same Straussian radiance infused Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, given broad romantic treatment, again with great involvement and sensitivity. The approach was almost Mediterranean in feeling, ripe and luxuriant. I was fully consumed by the beauty of this playing, and its sureness of line, but I could not help but ponder whether it was too warm and comfortable for a work based on Dehemel’s poem, which starts from two lovers estranged in moonlight in a ‘bare, cold grove’. I have always thought the virtue of this sextet version of the work (which received its recorded premiere from the Hollywood String Quartet in 1950) is that allowed greater intimacy than the orchestral version, permitting more of the raw, equivocal feelings and sharp edges in the poem to be probed. This would prompt a distilled foreboding and restlessness in the early part of the work (with full cutting intensity in the tremolos), allowing the warm redemptive viola/cello outpouring later on to have the strongest emotional force. Here this evolution seemed to be an extension of the warmth already established, rather than a key transition point. The sense of flow and unfolding in the current approach, and its larger scale, made it closer to the orchestral version, and I could not help but think of some parallel to Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Very enjoyable and beautiful on its own terms.

Greater virtuosity came into play in Tchaikovsky’s sextet ‘Souvenir de Florence’, bounding forth with spring-like energy, while always finding allusions the elegance and caprice of the Russian Imperial Court. The opening allegro had a wonderfully confident swing to it, tossing any of its turgidity to the winds, and cultivated a beguiling sweet songfulness before finishing with a burst of real frisson. I must remark on how well the rhythmic complexities of this movement were handled. The Adagio stated from grace and elegance, with telling contributions from Pavlovsky and Amanda Forsyth, moving into its passion with conviction. The Allegretto mixed gorgeous unison playing with enticing playfulness. A very Dvorakian gait was established in the finale, with enviable rhythmic spring, and full of all the right type of bucolic delight and lyricism. It ended in a flourish of glory.

A major inspiration of this concert was hearing the magnificent sound of this ensemble: violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s strong, clean and sweet projection, always anchoring the lyrical line so convincingly; his tonal integration with partner Sergei Bresler; the beautifully precise, open projection of cellist Kyril Zlotnikov, complementing the tight, sculpted lines of Amanda Forsyth; and the two gorgeous violas, the tonal resonance and beautifully turned execution of Ori Kam meshing distinctively with the sharper pungency of Pinchas Zukerman.

The encore was a transcription from a Lenski aria in Eugene Onegin – eloquent, sensual, with just the right hint of caprice to send everyone off in the finest of spirits.

October 22, 2018

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