Jerusalem Quartet displays extraordinary artistry at Mandel Hall

Sat Feb 28, 2015 at 2:15 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Jerusalem Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.
The Jerusalem Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Felix Broede

A critic’s task in reviewing performances of standard repertoire is the observation and commentary on the interpretive prowess of the artists on stage. But during the Jerusalem Quartet’s absorbing concert Friday at Mandel Hall, I found myself preoccupied by bigger questions—the sunny surface of a Mozart quartet barely concealing an extraordinary wealth of inventiveness; the dense, uncompromising dissonance of mature Bartók; and the aching passion and resourceful novelty of Schumann’s best music. There is no finer compliment for a performing artist than to have their audience’s attention thoroughly fixated on the creator rather than on themselves.

As with most string quartet programs, the repertoire choices weren’t especially imaginative in this University of Chicago Presents event, but there was a distinct pleasure to be had hearing three masterworks in succession that represent the summit of quartet writing in their respective eras. Regarding the essentials of quartet writing, Schumann’s dictum seemed apropos. “The composer must possess an intimate knowledge of the genre’s history, but should strive to produce more than mere imitations of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.”Oddly enough, this advice applies here retroactively even to Mozart’s own creation, the Quartet in G Major, K. 387, written under the spell of Haydn but brimming with concepts never before applied to quartets by either master.

First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky (identified only through a Google search – the members’ names were inexplicably absent from the program) spun Mozart’s radiant opening theme with understated grace, and the foursome’s beguiling sonic blend revealed itself from the outset. We tend to assume that the meat of a quartet is found in the outer movements, but the longest movement here is the minuet, a form often tossed off by Classical-era composers as harmless, formulaic intermezzi. The Jerusalem Quartet underlined Mozart’s mischief from the outset, with offbeat accents suggesting a duple meter rather than the standard triple, and chromatic lines that find the composer daring himself to derive a memorable tune from such meager scraps. The quartet zipped through the dazzling fugal finale, a movement with a four note kernel that would later spawn the finale of his “Jupiter” symphony.

While the quartet realized the uncompromising dissonances of the first movement of Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 with resolute grit, their finest moments (and arguably those of the work itself) were heard in the quartet’s interior. The scurrying second movement was delivered at a blistering pace, entirely muted but still decked out with a dizzying kaleidoscope of color. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov delivered an impassioned recitative under the hush, sustained chords of his comrades in the third movement, bravely soldiering on despite a nasty respiratory ailment that occupied several breaks between movements, as well as the blare of an insipid cell-phone ditty during an especially hushed passage. Second violinist Sergei Bresler more than held his own among his esteemed colleagues, but his occasional front line utterances could have projected deeper into the hall. The pizzicato fourth movement unfolded with percussive drive, the “snaps” (forever known as “Bartók pizzicatos” after this works’ premiere in 1929) ringing out with marked brutality.

Though their reading of this seminal work held many virtues, there were times when the details didn’t cohere as convincingly as in the other two programmed pieces. Time and repeated performances will likely bring a reading as convincing as the best contemporary Bartók interpreters.

Schumann’s Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3 was beyond reproach, expertly balanced and paced, with lush solo turns from Pavlovsky and violist Ori Kam. Once again the composer’s boldest break from tradition comes in the second movement, a restless and flustered theme and variations, or more precisely, a variations and theme, since the first appearance of the theme occurs not until midway through the movement. Here and in the finale, with interruptions that include a Baroque-ish gavotte, the quartet lovingly delineated each of Schumann’s mercurial mood swings.

The foursome responded to audience enthusiasm with a warm, supple account of the slow movement (Andantino doucement expressif) of Debussy’s String Quartet. Even the full-throated lament of an elderly patron in gastric distress (“I’m suffering from acid reflux!”) couldn’t break the spell of their enchanting reading.

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