Jerusalem String Quartet: Works by Mozart, Shostakovich and Brahms, Chan Centre, October 2, 2011

Jerusalem String Quartet (Photo by  Felix Broede)

Jerusalem String Quartet (Photo by Felix Broede)

Vancouver Recital Society’s love affair with the Jerusalem String Quartet started a decade ago when they made appearances at the Vancouver Summer Chamber Music Festival, showing themselves to be young musicians of rare artistry and promise.  In 2006, the quartet was invited to perform the complete Shostakovich string quartets for Vancouver audiences.  Their last appearance for the Society was in April 2009 and, at that point, I wrote: ‘It is striking how the Jerusalem Quartet has matured in only three or four years.  They have even more refinement and discipline than before and an even stronger tonal blend.’  So how much further have they developed now as they enter their early thirties?

I think that their current improvement lies less with technique and more with the maturing of musical insight and judgment.  Unlike many young performers who keep their virtuosity the same no matter which composer they are playing, the Jerusalem Quartet now clearly matches their emotional and technical resources to the exact needs of each composer.  Mozart sounds like Mozart; Shostakovich sounds like Shostakovich, and Brahms sounds like Brahms.  Moreover, fresh insights seem to be consistently revealed in each individual work they are performing.

The stunning performance on this occasion was the Shostakovich Quartet No. 11, an elegiac piece that probes many emotional corners in its (continuous) seven movement development.  This was one of the most ‘pure’ interpretations I have ever heard.  It flowed as a whole from beginning to end without the slightest exaggeration or hitch, capturing everything from the most explosive expression to the quietest tremolo.  The strength and subtlety of the playing and the overall cleanness of the lines, were remarkable -- much of this inspired by their leader, Alexander Pavlovsky.  This was the highest level of instrumental control used to produce a faithful and complete distillation of the composer’s intentions.

A very individual performance of Mozart’s moody and enigmatic D-minor Quartet, K. 421 too: scaled down, intimate, and full of probing half-tones – an entirely different world of expression!  Three movements of such restrained, inward playing with very little emphatic or forthright motion, and a finale which underplays the work’s tragic ending, may not be to everyone’s taste.  However, this playing was extremely special; very few quartets could sustain such sublime concentration over these lengths.  Perhaps only the exalted Quatuor Mosaiques comes to mind.  This was not Mozart for midday listening; rather, an enchanting experience for late at night.

In the closing Brahms A-minor Quartet, the artists seemed to go in the other direction, making this work bigger than one normally hears.  The thrust of the first movement was contrasted more boldly with its wistful lyricism (what a lovely swing they achieved in the movement’s second subject), bringing greater intensity and weight.   The second movement in turn was more richly expressive than usual.   However, the final two movements did not go as well.  The third has probably both more geniality and more mystery than was found, while the Hungarian ‘gypsy’ finale, projecting the same rugged contrasts as in the first movement, ended up slightly unsettled, almost trying for too much.   Nonetheless, an interesting perspective on this complex work. 

This was a concert rich in ideas and rich in artistry.  While the flying pizzicatos of the second movement of Debussy’s Quartet -- as the encore – reminded us of just how technically spectacular the Jerusalem Quartet can be, it is instructive that, for most of this concert, we did not think about technique at all.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011