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


  1. […] Source: Classic song review: Jerusalem Quartet brings Classicism’s distinctness to opposite kinds of class… […]

    Pingback by Classic music review: Jerusalem Quartet brings Classicism’s clarity to different kinds of classics | 7 Top M Download — October 26, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  2. Also, The Ear is correct that other than the annual preview of what we and Overture have in our seasons, our classical concerts are never previewed or reviewed in the Isthmus. I find it sad and disappointing.

    Comment by Esty Dinur — October 25, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    • Hi Esty,
      Thank you for backing my source up.
      The lack of coverage in Isthmus is regrettable or worse.
      Out-of-town artists are still worth covering. They are often the great, the legends.
      Would they not have covered Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Paul Robeson, Vladimir Horowitz, Marian Anderson, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, the Beaux Arts Trio, Nathan Milstein, Rudolf Serkin and so many others who made music history?
      Shame on them.
      And too bad for all of us.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  3. I take responsibility for the lack of biographical notes. My excuse: things were very hectic at the theater at the time the notes were sent to the printer. But I should have noticed that they were missing. My apologies to the musicians and the audience.

    I will leave it to Ralph to respond to the questions of audience size and the future of the Concert Series, but I can say that it is a concern. I personally don’t understand why the MSO and Opera get nice, large crowds but the same people don’t come to the magnificent concerts that we offer. Any thoughts on that, anyone?

    BTW, I, too, enjoyed the performance greatly.

    Comment by Esty Dinur — October 25, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    • Hi Esty,
      These things happen. And luckily there are other sources to catch up on both the performers and the music.
      It is big of you ‘fess up and take responsibility.
      I appreciate your candor and honesty.
      Thank you.
      Now, let’s all move on — and hope for bigger houses as well as remarks about the future of the Wisconsin Union Theater from Ralph Russo, the cultural arts director.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  4. We were disappointed that the program neglected to include background information on each of the musicians nor anything was written about the group’s background.

    Also, it would have been nice to have had a live introduction of the group.

    We enjoyed their beautiful performance.

    Comment by John Fantle — October 25, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      You have made a good, perceptive comment that deserves a response.
      I will contact the Wisconsin Union Theater and see why such notes were not provided.
      But you can go on-line to the Jerusalem’s website and get background info.
      You might also try the Wisconsin Union Theater’s website.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  5. I get really moved by this music. One of the better string performances.

    Comment by seconda — October 25, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    • Seconda,
      I get moved by it and couldn’t agree more.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  6. The Quartet’s program that we selected last spring was magnificent as was your review. Who could disagree and find anything else to add? Except that I like an appropriately strong cello and found it occasionally too restrained.

    I was shocked and terribly disappointed to learn that I was one of only 400 who experienced this significant Madison debut. While we made up for our numbers with enthusiastic gratitude this shortcoming is so unfortunate.

    The Union Concert Series has been recognized for such intelligently responsive audiences and artists love to play here. But Union concert audience numbers are declining as are those of venues nationwide. (The remarkable turnouts for our symphony and opera are quite the fortunate exception.)

    Do you think performers like the Jerusalem Quartet would rather not return to play for another such house? I expect artistic expression is their all, regardless of the number of seats filled in front of them. But their appearance was worthy of so much more than we were able to give back.

    Comment by Anne — October 25, 2010 @ 6:08 am

    • Hi Anne,
      You ask a very good question when it comes to attendance.
      I will ask around — both the Wisconsin Union Theater and a member of the Jerusalem Quartet — and find out how attendance might affect whether they are asked to return or want to return.
      I think they get a flat fee, but some performers also get a cut of the house.
      Whatever the case, it would be indeed be a shame if the Wisconsin Union Theater– the Carnegie Hall of Madison, as I like to describe it — were to suffer while other local groups prospered.
      My suspicion is that lots of factors go into it — including the amount of competing classical music available in Madison, the escalating fees for well known performers and the comparative scarcity of press coverage (I’m told Isthmus won’t review the Wisconsin Union Theater because they don’t consider it local. I bet they review Bob Dylan at Overture, although he’s not local either and is touring. But they’re hardly alone. There’s plenty of blame –or reasons — to go around.
      Do you have any other thoughts on the matter?
      Thanks, as ever, for reading and replying so intelligently.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 8:44 am

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