Jens heard the Jerusalem Quartet last May at the Kennedy Center. The Jerusalems are a highly decorated young string quartet, embarking on a three-year residency in Australia and a full schedule of exciting concerts. Jens mentioned their recent Shostakovich CD in that review last year, too, and Ionarts could not pass up the chance to hear the Jerusalem play one of Shostakovich's quartets. It meant, however, a long drive out to Rockville, which for me involves navigating the Beltway -- last night, as it happened, in the torrential rain and flash flood warnings.
I am pleasantly surprised to report that it's not too bad of a drive, although I would certainly not volunteer to do it very often. The fine programming of chamber music at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, however, offers regular temptation. The center does not offer concerts on Friday nights, and on last Saturday night when I succombed, the starting time was pushed back to the extremely late time of 9 pm, to allow for the completion of the Sabbath, observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The small auditorium has a good sound, and there was a faithful audience, filling about two-thirds of the seats. Some of them, I learned, have attended these concerts regularly for most of the series' history.
The group opened with an early Beethoven quartet, "La Malinconia" (op. 18, no. 6). The first movement's dialogues between pairs of instruments are an important motif, and the Jerusalem Quartet's well-matched sense of ensemble made for a unified rendition. The gorgeous second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) is a set of variations, with spectral unison sounds before a shift to a minor key. There was real delight in Beethoven's shifting of the accented beats in the third-movement Scherzo, with a laughing violin solo in the trio before the clock ticked down to a fun, abrupt ending. However, it is the fourth movement, which gives its title to the whole quartet, that anchors this piece. "La Malinconia" was the subject of a study in the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, (A. E. Caldwell, 1972), analyzed as "a musical account of manic depressive states." It oscillates between its somber homophonic depressive theme -- played here quite straight, with minimal vibrato -- and a faster, manic section. The sound of the Jerusalem Quartet was so warm, and the odd harmonic shifts were not jarring but perfectly aligned, an uninterrupted flow of moods.
Next they played one of Mendelssohn's early quartets, op. 12, his first published string quartet. It's hard to believe that people did not listen to the Mendelssohn quartets as much as they could have before they were re-established in the concert repertoire in the previous century. This quartet's tone is announced in the opening gesture of the first violin, a searching large interval fraught with urgency. Mendelssohn reversed the traditional order of this quartet's middle movements, opting for a minor-key Canzonetta as the folksy second movement, complete with musette drone in the trio. They played the extended runs on paired instruments at a rapid tempo, with some minor discombobulation but an exciting quality. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky gave a virtuosic rendition of the third movement (Andante espressivo), which is pretty much the first violin's show, with his clean and bright tone. In the final movement (Molto allegro e vivace) the Jerusalems struck just about the perfect tempo, fast enough to thrill but never over the precipice. The impassioned outbursts of the conclusion made a fitting end to the first half.
D. Shostakovich, String Quartets nos. 1, 4, and 9, Jerusalem String Quartet (released in 2005)
Op. 110, the approximate midpoint of the string quartet cycle, is autobiographical in the sense that the composer's signature motif -- D-S-C-H, or D, E-flat, C, B-natural -- is all over it. The quartet's key signature, C minor, would be the one most suited to the theme, since it is re-me-do-ti in that key. Shostakovich composed it in East Germany in 1960, when he was supposed to be working on the score for a film about the World War II bombing of Dresden. As was especially true of his last works, Shostakovich also peppered the score with quotations, from his own compositions and the work of others. This rendition contrasted the glassy opening sounds -- somber open fifths in the lower three instruments with the first violin sliding in and out on folkish blue notes -- with a gripping, barbaric fast second movement. After the grotesque dance of the third movement and the gorgeous A-string cello melody in the middle of the fourth (Kyril Zlotnikov plays on Jacqueline du Pré's lovely Sergio Perresson cello, loaned to him by Daniel Barenboim), the piece closes on those same open fifths, with the violin working slowly around the dissonant interval le-sol, until it finally resolves. Zlotnikov has said in one article, "We connect really well with the Shostakovich pieces. There is something special there that I can't explain." Yes, indeed.
This program repeated on Sunday night (April 23 at 7:30 pm). Other upcoming performances at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington are the final installment of the National Symphony Orchestra/JCC Chamber Music Series on Monday, May 22, at 8 pm, and the JCC Symphony Orchestra with Ricardo Cyncynates, Assistant Concertmaster of the NSO, playing Paganini's D Major Violin Concerto on Sunday, June 18, at 7:30 pm.