Melinda Bargreen | 01 MAR 2021
Long-established string quartets are usually praised for their wisdom, vision, and unanimity; younger quartets for their passion, technique, and energy.
How wonderful to have all six attributes together in one ensemble, as does the Jerusalem Quartet in its current livestream performance of Mozart and Schubert quartets presented by Spivey Hall. Founded in 1993, the ensemble may have 28 years of experience under its cummerbunds, but the players still perform with the musical vitality of recent prizewinners. The Quartet members are Alexander Pavlovsky, violin; Sergei Bresler, violin; Ori Kam, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello.
In this program, the Jerusalem Quartet offers two undisputed masterpieces – Mozart’s K,575 and Schubert’s No. 14 (“Death and the Maiden”) — performed and recorded in a clear and resonant musical space, the Jerusalem Music Center. Both works bear an emotional significance for the respective composer: Mozart wrote the K.575 (one of his last group of quartets) to appeal to Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II, who apparently turned them down, much to his disappointment. Schubert composed his No. 14 when he was already ill with a disease that would kill him a few years later.
Both performances are revelatory. Watching the Jerusalem Quartet in action is a study in contradictions: unlike many string quartets, whose members are in constant eye contact and are closely observing each other, these four players appear to be in their respective sound worlds. First violinist Pavlovsky looks up only occasionally from his score; the other players are similarly engrossed in the music, with few of the sidelong glances or other cues usually employed by ensembles in ensuring unanimity. These four players don’t need cues to do that: they know exactly where they’re all going.
Somehow, they create the subtlest nuances of phrasing with almost no physical cues: the opening lines of the Mozart flitted like an airborne feather back and forth among the instruments. And their diminuendos seemed to float up into the ether like a puff of smoke; the sound just wafts away.
The music is wonderfully characterized; it’s amazing to hear the delicate separation of notes in Mozart first-movement staccato passages. There’s a real sense of musical rapport in the question-and-answer passages between the players as they pass themes back and forth. And yet, there’s scarcely any eye contact among the four quartet members; they know exactly where they are and what they’re doing next.
The quartet members are fairly closely miked; you hear indrawn breaths and the subtly waning contact with the string on a long diminuendo. The very active cello part (in which that instrument plays the melody in passages with the bass line given to the viola instead) clearly substantiates the belief that Mozart wrote this quartet with the cello-playing royal in mind.
The third movement of the Mozart is beautifully detailed with lots of dynamic contrasts, sudden accents and withdrawals, and lively interplay among the four instruments. The intervals (especially fifths and octaves) are precise and clean. The final movement is a marvel of freshness and invention, and the players’ expressive faces reflect their pleasure in the music.
One of the few advantages of streamed concerts over live events – creative camerawork – gives this concert an intriguing dimension. Several different camera angles highlight specific players at vital moments in the score. And an astonishing overheard view, used sparingly but effectively, gives the performance an aspect few viewers could see in a live concert.
And then we go from the sunny D major of the Mozart quartet to the stormy D minor opening statement of the Schubert. It’s a different sound world and a totally different performance style. This is where the Jerusalem Quartet shows its remarkable depth. Playing this turbulent music with a relentless energy, the quartet made the tricky double-stop chord sequences near the end of the movement sound like an organ chorale. The command of dynamics was just extraordinary, as the sound tapered away into silence at the end of the movement.
In the second movement (Andante con moto), the four players spin out their sound to a mere thread without losing control; missteps are rare, sometimes involving matters as subtle as a pizzicato that’s just a little too quiet at the end of a given phrase. The camera pans in on the instruments one by one as each player comes to the fore in turn. The cello’s solo is shot closeup from the side so you see the precise contact of bow and fingers to the strings. Aerial shots again are effective. So much is lost in a long-distance recorded performance that it is gratifying to have “value added” elements like creative camerawork.
Individual voices emerge with virtuoso solos that advance and recede. There’s some fierce work from the cellist in the stormiest passages. Then finally the minor changes to major like a quiet benediction.
The third-movement Scherzo is vigorous and strongly accented, but without the rasping and forcing that are sometimes heard in this movement. When the opening statement returns, all the first violin has to do is to initiate just a moment of eye contract, and then they’re off.
Rare is the note that is not hit dead center, or the bow that is a nanosecond before or behind everyone else. These players have refined every attack, every release, in a performance that is strikingly unanimous, but still manages to sound spontaneous and sudden. They’re capable of turning on a dime between forceful passages and calm delicacy. Rare is the note that is not hit dead center.
The final Presto is a miracle of clean precision, fleet and full of contrasts in dynamics and bowing.
As always in these virtual concerts, there’s the sudden surprise of dead silence, just when you’re expect a standing, shrieking audience that has been thoroughly thrilled. But there are compensations: In this case, an interview of two of the quartet’s players, Pavlovsky and Kam, with executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall, Sam Dixon. It’s a nice touch that gives the concertgoer a welcome glance behind the scenes. ■