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The Berkeley Daily Planet


Reviewed by James Roy MacBean

The husband-and-wife team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth joined forces with The Jerusalem Quartet for a program of string sextets on Saturday, October 13 at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Featured works were Richard Strauss’s String Sextet from Capriccio, Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg, and String Sextet in D minor, Souvenir de Florence by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Jerusalem Quartet consists of Alexander Pavlovsky, violin; Sergei Bresler, violin; Ori Kam, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello. For this concert, Pinchas Zukerman eschewed the violin and played viola, and Amanda Forsyth played cello.
In his last opera, Capriccio, Richard Strauss explored the question of the relative importance of words and music. This, of course, is a question that has stirred up controversy throughout the history of opera and art song. Although Richard Strauss left the question open, he had fun exploring it in Capriccio, and he also had fun in composing the String Sextet from Capriccio. In this music we hear snippets of Mozart, Gluck, Wagner, and Verdi, composers who all made contributions to the debate over which has priority, words or music. As played here by Jerusalem Quartet & Guests, Strauss’s String Sextet sparkled with ever changing lubricity, featuring at one moment the robust tone of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky and at another moment the burnished tone of cellist Kyril Zlotnikov.

Next on the program was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht/Transfigured Night, a work that premiered in 1902. In Verklärte Nacht we have Schoenberg before he adopted the twelve tone technique of composition. Thus, Verklärte Nacht stands as a pivotal monument of sorts to Wagner’s chromaticism and Post Romanticism in general. Audience members who generally shy away from Schoenberg are often surprised to find how much they like Verklärte Nacht. (In fact, at this concert’s intermission one woman told me just that.) In Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg set to music a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a man and woman walk through a forest at night and have an emotional conversation that ends up transfiguring their nocturnal promenade.

The work begins with slow sighing figures from violas and cellos, thereby setting an elegiac mood. Then come moments of anguish and sadness, followed by a radiant theme in a warm major key. This momentary joy, however, turns nightmarish, with screaming violin lines, dissonant harmonies, and strange viola pizzicato figures. Following this harrowing music, a warm cello line in a major key restores a note of hope, and here Kyril Zlotnikov’s burnished tone on cello provided a highlight of the concert. Now began the ‘transfiguring’ in which the falling scales of the opening are recycled in a new, ‘transfigured’ light. A brief coda paints an evocative picture of a starry universe, thus creating a most beautiful musical nightscape.

After intermission, Jerusalem Quartet & Guests returned to perform Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor, Souvenir de Florence. Tchaikovsky wrote this work shortly after returning to Russia from an 1890 trip to Italy. It premiered in St. Petersburg in late 1892. In performing this Souvenir de Florence, Jerusalem Quartet’s cellist Kyril Zlotnikov ceded the first cello chair to Amanda Forsythe, whose richly hued tone beautifully complemented Zlotnikov’s. Among Tchaikovsky’s works, Souvenir de Florence is a rarity in bearing no hint of the composer’s habitual melancholy and doubt. Though the music is decidedly Russian, its spirit seems inspired by the lightness and zesty quality of life in Italy, whose “heavenly” climate was much appreciated by Tchaikovsky. The Russian quality of this music comes to a climax in the two closing movements, which are based on folk-like themes, including a final, lively Cossack dance.

As an encore, Jerusalem Quartet & Guests performed a transcription of music from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. This brought to a close a lovely concert of well-chosen, exquisitely performed works for string sextet.

October 15, 2018

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