Jerusalem Quartet

String Quartet in G, Op.18/2
String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.49
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 March, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A full house greeted the youthful Jerusalem Quartet, three Russians and an Israeli, now celebrating its 10th anniversary and here offering a sneak preview of the Shostakovich cycle which the group will share with the Tel Aviv Quartet at the Wigmore Hall next season; this was a fine advert for it.

Written in 1938 at the height of the purges, Shostakovich’s First Quartet is a lyrical piece which the composer described as his “Spring Quartet”. Two years earlier following the public success of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Shostakovich had been the subject of the Stalin-instigated Pravda article “Muddle instead of Music”; thereafter Shostakovich rehabilitated or at least saved himself with the Fifth Symphony, which drew the comment, sometimes wrongly attributed to the composer, as “a Soviet artist’s creative answer to just criticism”. Despite the composer’s comment, many years later, that “in composing my first quartet I visualised childhood scenes, somewhat naive and bright moods”, one suspects that it is music written through gritted teeth. Here it received an outstandingly idiomatic performance, perhaps a little too moderate in the first movement, but wonderfully rich-toned, the music living and breathing naturally. Especially memorable was the second movement, also marked Moderato, which opens with an extended viola solo, eloquently played by Amichai Grosz and most subtly varied on its return.

Equally impressive was ‘Death and the Maiden’. It takes a certain chutzpah for a young group to choose this Everest of quartet literature, inviting as it does comparisons with all the great quartets who have played it. However, besides the immediacy of response one might have expected from a youthful group, what was actually most remarkable about the Jerusalem’s performance was its maturity and grasp of long-term structure, not rushing fences and allowing tensions to build up over long spans. Rhetoric is now an unfashionable word, having acquired overtones of insincerity, but it was the rhetoric of this performance – statement, counter-statement and precise timing (i.e. rhetoric in the original sense of the word, the art of effective public speaking) – that was its distinguishing feature. This was playing symphonic in scale, the work’s opening octaves having immense physical impact and the concluding Presto generating compelling forward momentum. The bleak inwardness of the Andante’s variations was fully realised, and with sensitivity (although Death in the form of a mobile phone intervened at the movement’s close, the second time in the evening).

The Beethoven is one of his wittiest creations. The Jerusalem made the first movement a little heavy on its feet and the Haydnesque finale was over-forceful. There were compensations though, notably the perfectly judged pauses as well as the depth of sound these musicians brought to the extraordinary slow movement, which has a mini scherzo at its core. As with the Schubert, this movement was similarly bedevilled by the same “musical” mobile phone!

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