The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Jerusalem Quartet brings Classicism’s clarity to different kinds of classics

October 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

First, the good news: No protesters showed up to picket Friday night’s concert by the Jerusalem String Quartet at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

Although Madison is a place much given to protests and progressive politics, it was refreshing to see – to hope – that the better part of judgment or wisdom prevailed.

After all, the quartet (below), while based in Israel, does not support or benefit from the Israeli government or its controversial policies. It has played with Palestinians and in Arab and Muslim countries, and in last week’s interview with The Ear, first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky said they want to do more along those lines.

Second, the bad news: Only about 400 people — about a one-third house – heard the quartet, which was making its Wisconsin debut, perform an impressive program of Haydn, Debussy and Brahms.

And finally, the best news: You simply will not hear better string quartet playing.

Oh, you might hear some to rival it – the Emerson, Takacs and Tokyo quartets come immediately to mind – but this was exquisitely music played exquisitely.

By the end of the concert, you had no doubt why the quartet, now 17 years, has won numerous international awards and received critical acclaim. It is tops.

My only regret is that they apparently record only one CD a year for Harmonia Mundi. I want to hear more of them, especially in mixed concert-style programs along the lines of the “Live at Wigmore Hall” series.

I like well thought-out programs that draw links and establish connections. And that is exactly what this program — consisting of all masterpieces — did.

The Haydn was an early but particularly songful and soulful quartet – Op. 20, No. 5 in F minor — with a wonderful fugal ending that makes you understand why Beethoven studied counterpoint with Papa Haydn (below).

Even with its dash of Eastern European zest, this was first-rate Classical playing, marked by clarity of line and tone. That’s why the Haydn fugue is key:

More surprising for me was Debussy’s only string quartet, in G minor, Op. 10. What the Jerusalem proved – and what you often don’t hear – is all the same Classical clarity they brought to Haydn only in much later music. It is the way Debussy (below in a photo) should be played. Too often you hear fuzzy or gauzy Impressionist interpretations that blur things in wash of color without regard to structure and to Debussy’s mastery of precedent.

Not with the Jerusalem. You heard the lines, the phrases, the counterpoint and part writing. You heard the traditional techniques that support the more deceptive and revolutionary façade of Debussy. And the French do love impersonality and rationality, clarity and precision, a certain Cartesian quality, even in more emotional or subjective music or art.

The slow movement was especially impressive. Such sublime music could not and cannot be played more sublimely. It had sentiment without sentimentality, and you just basked in it, wanting more. It would have made for a great encore.

The Jerusalem Four also brought that same sense of clarity and straightforward playing to their reading of Brahms’s Quartet No. 1 in C minor.

Brahms (below), like Debussy, can murky or thick, though in a different way. But the Jerusalem penetrated the fog of late Romanticism and left us with Brahms the classicist. They play as if they are X-raying the score. That is not to say that they play clinically, which they do not. It is just to underscore that they do not cheat. They allow you to hear the music from the inside, the same way they have to hear it in order to play it.

All of the players performed well, with great tone and engagement and equality or evenness. But special mentioned should go to the violist Ori Kam. He is the newest member of the quartet. Yet he seemed the glue that held together the higher register of the violin parts and the lower register of the cello part.

But ultimately, the secret of this quartet – like that of all great quartets and of chamber music partners in general – is the submerging of ego. Though each player possessed to virtuoso skills and tone, they subjugated those skills to serve the greater good.

And that good was great. The Jerusalem turns Classicism in to class.

Here’s hoping the Jerusalem Quartet return again – to a much bigger audience.

Did you hear the Jerusalem Quartet?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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