Jerusalem Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn

String Quartet in C, Op.33/3 (The Bird)
String Quartet in G minor, Op.74/3 (Rider)
String Quartet in F minor, Op.20/5
String Quartet in G, Op.77/1

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 February, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Part of the Wigmore Hall’s ongoing Haydn series, this was a concert that promised rather more than it actually delivered. With five concerts at the Wigmore this season, the Jerusalem Quartet has established itself as favourites with London audiences. However, an all-Haydn recital is a tough test and this one, whilst it had some good things – notably a cultivated blend of sound and a superb second violin in Sergei Bresler – proved less than the sum of its parts.

Jerusalem Quartet Opening with ‘The Bird’ (from Opus 33) hardly got the evening off to the best of starts. Both outer movements were distinctly breathless and short on polish. The first was subjected to high-pressure tactics and lost much of its carefree charm. The finale, although marked Presto, was garbled and militated against clean articulation. The two central movements came off best with a lilting Minuet and a poised Adagio.

Better by far was the dramatic ‘Rider’ quartet. We are accustomed to thinking of Mozart’s G minor works as having a particular dramatic force but sometimes Haydn in the same key can be just as arresting. The opening gesture, a bald unison followed by a dramatic silence after which the instruments tiptoe in, was superbly managed, as were the many silences thereafter. Here the Jerusalem Quartet’s rich sonority and power was far more apt, the elevated Largo assai with its febrile tremolandos having a quasi-orchestral weight.

The programme’s second half followed a remarkably similar pattern. In the wonderful Opus 20/Number 5 the Moderato opening movement was once again hurried. What was missing was any feeling of infectious delight in Haydn’s unpredictable invention, that sense of shared relish in those abrupt changes of direction which give the music its spice, whilst the bland metropolitan-sounding Minuet cried out for the kind of bluff earthy vigour which reminds one of the composer’s country roots.

Opus 77/Number 1 – as with the ‘Rider’, this is another ‘late’ quartet and shows Haydn at the very height of his powers and at his most imposing. As before the musicians seemed more at ease in this music rather than the earlier scores; however, despite rich sonorities, it felt as though the work were being constantly pushed along – even the Minuet (which would have fitted into any of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets) was taken so headlong that its ‘laugh out loud’ ending went for little, whilst in the heavily-accented ‘Hungarian’ finale intonation suffered.

The Jerusalem Quartet is a fine ensemble, notable in Schubert and Shostakovich. In Haydn – at least on this occasion – the musicians seemed seriously miscast. Seldom can Haydn have sounded less witty or more earnest.

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