Jerusalem Quartet at Bath International MusicFest

Haydn
String Quartet in G, Op.77/1
Bartók
String Quartet No.4
Debussy
String Quartet in G minor, Op.10

Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler (violins), Amichai Grosz (viola) & Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]


Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 23 May, 2009
Venue: Assembly Rooms, Bath

Jerusalem QuartetWhen the Jerusalem Quartet arrived on the platform for this first evening concert of the 2009 Bath Festival and surveyed the Assembly Rooms, the musicians had that slightly glazed look of incredulity, as though time had suddenly telescoped into nothing and they had been here only days before. In fact, it was a bit like that for some of the audience too, since they had played here just six months ago at the Mozartfest and before that in Bath’s 2006 Festival when replacing the Borodin Quartet at short notice. This was a welcome opportunity to hear the Jerusalem Quartet in different repertoire again and to try and fathom its members out.

For there is something horribly fascinating about watching these musicians. Unanimity of ensemble is the quality that is paramount in their playing and it was particularly noteworthy in the Haydn, who presents so much of his thematic material in unison. But the Jerusalem’s approach is assertive almost to the point of aggression and it can be disconcerting. In a score, attacca at the end of a section or movement has a specific meaning (go straight on without a pause) – but with these players it might their slogan, writ large at the beginning of everything. Even quiet music – whether fast or slow – has this edge to it, without necessarily achieving a defining precision of articulation. And, in this performance, closing the eyes and listening was not an instinctive response to the bliss of the moment, but a way of shutting out the distraction of the attack. Certainly, since this was often too brazen and contemporary an approach to Haydn to feel entirely comfortable, it was good to hear the Jerusalem return to Haydn for its encore, and bring to the slow movement of his Opus 20/Number 5 a more relaxed and less self-conscious warmth.

Bringing out the gutsy Magyar gypsy feel of Opus 77/Number 1’s scherzo, as Alexander Pavlovsky did so robustly, helped underline an affinity with Bartók which is sometimes forgotten. In the Fourth Quartet, the players clearly relished getting to grips with the different textural qualities that the composer demands, not least the ‘Bartók pizzicato’ where the string plucked audibly rebounds off the fingerboard, and there was a primitive wildness in the finale which was really striking. But it was the highly atmospheric ‘night music’ of the central Lento which proved most satisfying for confirming the sensibilities of cellist Kyril Zlotnikov in his beautifully projected lines. Zlotnikov – who, courtesy of Daniel Barenboim, plays the Sergio Perresson cello that Barenboim had made for his wife Jacqueline Du Pré – is less impassive than his colleagues, revealing his musicianship through body language. While Pavlovsky and Zlotnikov appear to be the axis of power in this ensemble, there were times when could not help that Zlotnikov’s influence could be more pervading.

If demonstrating that Debussy is not all impressionistic and wishy-washy was the Jerusalem’s intention in his sole String Quartet, then it succeeded. This was a full-blooded and muscular interpretation, during which the wattage in the chandelier above the players began to fluctuate from bright to feeble and back again for several minutes; it was a bit like a spirit trying to signal something urgent, possibly about the interpretation. Appropriately enough, the Andantino, marked doucement expressif, was the closest they got to a sweetly expressive sound, but even that was curiously unmoving. Nevertheless, the finale had heaps of character and even a touch of manic feverishness, suggesting that, for all that the Jerusalem is a quartet with attitude, its members are not automata.



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