This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
Bartók, String Quartets 2/4/6, Jerusalem Quartet
(released on November 4, 2016)
HMC902235 | 78'51"
Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 18, Jerusalem Quartet (Harmonia Mundi, 2015)
Haydn, Lark Quartet (inter alia), Jerusalem Quartet (Harmonia Mundi, 2004)
This program opened with one of the Haydn quartets the group recorded over a decade ago, op. 64, no. 5, known as "L'Alouette" (The lark). Haydn is not easy, although his music may seem so on the surface, because it requires extraordinary subtlety to bring off well. Only some initial tuning discrepancies marred the first time through the exposition of the first movement, which settled into place for the rest of the piece. The first movement's tempo marking, Allegro moderato, implies exactly the jaunty but unhurried pace chosen by the Jerusalems, allowing just enough relishing of Haydn's sneaking back into the main theme at the recapitulation. The second movement had the feel of an opera aria, showcasing the solo of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky, accompanied with gorgeously delicate variations by the accompanying instruments. The group's dance movements are generally delightful, as was the Menuetto here, weighty yet graceful, and not too fast, with comic wrong-note grace notes and a plaintive trio. Only with the finale, set at a tempo of Vivace, did the speed come out of the arsenal of weapons. Light, playful, it was a tour de force, with all instruments featured in beautiful spotlights in the fugal section.
The Prokofiev string quartets are hopefully among this group's future recording projects. Given that their Shostakovich ranks among the best version of that composer's quartet cycle, it was little surprise that a performance of Prokofiev's op. 50 was so good. Pavlovsky had just the right gleaming tone on the slashing first violin melody of the first movement's opening theme, with the other instruments coming to the fore in the slower, more passionate second theme. Tuning issues cropped up again, with unisons and octaves between instruments not always lining up, but the brutal passages were appropriately savage. After a mournful opening, the second movement's grotesque faster sections were funny and obsessive, with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov howling on his A-string solo. Violist Ori Kam had some luscious solo moments in the third movement, which buzzed with intensity until it died away.
Once during the Prokofiev and again in Beethoven's op. 59, no. 1 ("Razumovsky"), Zlotnikov's cello peg seemed to slide out of its place on the floor and bump his music stand. Resulting unease may have been partially responsible for the Beethoven feeling the least satisfying, although still beautiful. The first movement went a little too fast for all of the rapid running passages to come out distinctly enough, but Beethoven's toying around with the return of the main theme at the recapitulation, long delayed, was rendered well. The tempo marking of the second movement is confusing, because it is seemingly contradictory (Allegretto vivace sempre scherzando), but the Jerusalems took it not too fast, which seems the right call. The obsessive "drum motif" that runs through the piece is more tense that way. The climax of the quartet here was the slow movement, which was placid, clear, and expressive because it was so well coordinated. The trill in the first violin covered the transition into the finale, where the strain of a long evening frayed the edges of the first violinist's playing in a few places.
A single encore was a preview of the Jerusalem Quartet's new disc of half of Bartók's string quartets, a repertory I have been waiting for them to record. The Allegro pizzicato movement from the fourth quartet had a stunning variety of plucked sound, making it much more than just an effect piece. The force of the "Bartók pizzicati," more percussive than a normal plucked string, caused one of the cellist's strings to break, sadly not many bars before the piece ended. Once the string was replaced, and a few anecdotes told, the group repeated the entire movement.
Next up at the Clarice Smith Center, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra plays Shostakovich's tenth symphony (November 7, 8 pm).