Prokofiev / Beethoven
Lugano, LAC, 2017-04-23
2017-04-29 — Original posting
The Jerusalem Quartet made its first public appearance in 1996 (the founding of the quartet was in 1993/1994).
- Alexander Pavlovsky, violin
Instrument: J.F.Pressenda (1824)
- Sergei Bresler, violin
Instrument: Lorenzo Storioni (1770)
- Ori Kam, viola. Ori Kam joined the ensemble 2010, stepping in for Amihai Grosz, who then joined the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as principal violist.
Instrument: Hiroshi Iizuka (2009)
- Kyril Zlotnikov, cello
Instrument: Giovanni Battista Ruggieri (1710). This was loaned to the artist by Daniel Barenboim. The instrument was formerly played by Jacqueline du Pré (1945 – 1987).
For some additional (still rudimentary, at this time) information on the ensemble see also Wikipedia.
The instruments area mix of old and new. Age is not really relevant with instruments of the violin family. Modern luthiers are able to produce instruments that can compete with even highest quality ones from Cremona or other prominent locations. On the other hand, most historic violins are no longer in the original form. Rather, they have undergone modifications such as adopting a longer fingerboard and a steeper neck for higher string tension (more volume). And, just as important: the majority of the instruments now are played with modern strings (rather than pure gut strings). And Tourte type bows are used almost universally. In this series of concerts, only the Cuarteto Casals played parts of their recital on period bows.
The Jerusalem Quartet uses Tourte-type bows and modern strings. Ori Kam’s viola is the only new instrument. One would not guess that from the looks. However, there were some extravaganzas in the design, such as an artful inlay under the fingerboard, and a scroll—”Schnecke” (snail) in German—without “heart”. The luthier, Hiroshi Iizuka, also plays with unusual body shapes, though this instrument had a regular-shaped body.
BTW: Ori Kam is not only the newest member to the ensemble (all others are founding members), he was also the only one who played from a tablet computer, rather than sheet music.
Venue and Concert Setting
This was the last one of a weekend series of three top quality String Quartet recitals in the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura). Also this one was not set up in the main concert hall. Rather, it took place in the Teatrostudio, see my earlier post for details. In this recital, there were around 75 – 80 people in the audience. Unlike the previous recitals, this one—on a cold, but sunny Sunday afternoon—was set to start at 17:00h rather than 20:30h. This made it possible for me to travel back home by train on the same day.
Each of the recitals featured two quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, and one by a 20th century composer. Gringolts Quartet on 2017-04-21 (op.18/6 — Dutilleux — op.59/2), and Cuarteto Casals on 2017-04-22 (op.18/1 — Shostakovich — op.135). See my other posts for details. The original announcement had Prokofiev’s String Quartet No.1 in B minor, op.50 at the beginning. This was to be followed first by Beethoven’s op.95, then op.59/1. The final program, however, followed the same pattern as the two other recitals. It featured the 20th century work in the center: op.95 — Prokofiev — op.59/1.
Just like the Gringolts Quartet two days earlier, the musicians of the Jerusalem Quartet formed an almost closed circle. The arrangement was much narrower and far less open than with the Cuarteto Casals on the previous day. But just like the latter, the Jerusalem Quartet had the violins sitting on the left, the cello on the rear right-hand side. The viola player sat on the right, facing the first violin.
As in the preceding concert reviews, I’m referring back to my earlier article with a detailed comparison of various recordings of the String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95, “Serioso”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). In this note, I’m merely giving a list of the movements and their time signatures:
- Allegro con brio, 4/4
- Allegretto ma non troppo, 2/4 –
- Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, 3/4 – Più allegro
- Larghetto espressivo, 2/4 – Allegretto agitato, 6/8 – Allegro, 2/2
I. Allegro con brio
Right from the first bars, it was clear that the quartet would fulfill the high expectations. We experienced energetic playing, focused, with verve and dedication, a dense tone. And yes, as expected, their playing followed the conventions of the second half of the 20th century. Consequently, vibrato was virtually omnipresent. However, this in my view never hurt the esthetics, i.e., it was neither too strong, not nervous, nor overly heavy.
Above all this, I must concede, the artists played with a uniform technical prowess that one rarely finds at this level. Dynamics and articulation were always carefully crafted. Intonation and coordination flawless throughout, and the sound balance left nothing to wish for. And yet, the music was alive, never sterile or trying to convey the impression of ultra-polished, machine-like perfection. This already characterizes all playing in this concert. Therefore, my comments will be terse, describing mostly my personal / intuitive impressions. I don’t want to repeat myself with talking about the quality of the performance.
II. Allegretto ma non troppo –
A very expressive performance, dense, with perfect coordination and balanced tone, down to the softest flageolet. I also liked that in all the calmness, the artists never dropped the tension.
III. Allegro assai vivace ma serioso – Più allegro
A movement outbursts full of punctuated rhythm—right at the start, later recurring. These wild segments alternate with gentle, very melodic sections with wonderful cantilenas. These are accompanied by serene, relayed-playful repeated motifs in the first violin: very nice music! In the “outburst segments”, I found the punctuated rhythms occasionally to be a tad broad (tending towards triplets).
IV. Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegro
After the introductory Larghetto espressivo (really “serioso“!), the rhythmically intricate Allegretto agitato showed ensemble playing and coordination in perfection. As if it was played with the very same heartbeat. The concluding Allegro was very virtuosic. Initially, I felt it to be a tad on the smooth side.
Prokofiev: String Quartet No.1 in B minor, op.50
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) was commissioned by the Library of Congress to write a string quartet. The composer completed the String Quartet No.1 in B minor, op.50 in 1930. It premiered in the following year in Washington D.C., later in Moscow. The quartet features the following three movements:
- Andante molto — Vivace
Prokofiev later created a version of the third movement (which he obviously liked a lot) for string orchestra (op.50a). Subsequently, he even created a piano transcription, which he published as op.52.
In the introduction, especially in the melody voice, the articulation was fairly portato, playful rather than rudely, obstinately percussive. Despite the harmonic progression so typical for Prokofiev, this is definitely neo-classical music. It is very rich in melodies, some of them jubilant, others begging. Then again, there are outbreaks, outcries of pain. The movement overall is vivid, nice, even catchy, music with “drive”, rich in rapidly changing emotions.
II. Andante molto — Vivace
In the first bars, the cello plays a motif that strongly reminds me of the “Muss es sein?” question at the beginning of the final movement in Beethoven’s String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135. This may well have inspired Prokofiev. After 14 bars, a Vivace follows. This was played with perfectly tuned articulation / tone quality. We heard some extremely virtuosic “duels” between a pair of instruments and their counterparts. The movement also exhibited the beautiful sonority of Ori Kam’s viola. This amazed me, because that instrument was directed towards the wall behind the musicians. Interestingly, it was again the cellist who kept eye contact with his colleagues. Just like the Cuarteto Casals on the evening before. He showed the richest set of facial expressions (though, he wasn’t smiling!). And again, we could enjoy Prokofiev’s wonderful, catchy melodies.
The richness in melodies also applies to the final movement, a placid, but expressive Andante. Here, the melodies are again clearly tonal. They are seemingly endless, in that they never appear to find the turn into a closing cadence. A dense, intense movement, equally earnest as well as jubilant. The melody line in the first violin contains several instances of a motif that strongly reminds me of “In a Garden Shady…” from the “Hymn to St. Cecilia“ by Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976). The latter was composed 1942. So, at best, Britten might have been inspired by Prokofiev’s quartet (in all likelihood, the similarity is purely coincidental. Britten was a pianist, after all).
The quartet ends with some strong “statements”. There is a final, beautifully melodic climax. This is followed by a Pochissimo più andante Coda that moves from strongly motoric to a Calando, down a calm pp. The musicians managed to keep up the tension so much that the well-deserved applause took an amazingly long time to set in.
Again, for a description and discussion of the composition, I’m referring back to my earlier article with a detailed comparison of various recordings of the String Quartet No.7 in F major, op.59/1, a.k.a. “Razumovsky No.1” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Here, I’m just giving a list of the movements and their time signatures:
- Allegro, 4/4
- Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando, 3/8
- Adagio molto e mesto, 2/4 —
- Thème Russe: Allegro, 2/4
This movement was played at a very fluent pace. Every musical gesture seemed to fit perfectly. It must take years to reach this level of perfection in ensemble playing! To me, it was again most interesting to follow Kyril Zlotnikov’s playing at the cello. I observed how he was actively watching the other’s playing, listening to the other musicians. He often appeared to stretch his ears towards one of his neighbors! His facial expression (expressing interest and attention). He seemed to generate the impulses in this movement.
II. Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
Even though this movement appears to consist mostly of repeated notes, largely semiquavers, it technically demanding. Here, the spiccato playing was excellent. Again, the cellist seemed to take the lead role, from beginning up to Beethoven’s little joke in the final bars.
III. Adagio molto e mesto —
Here, I liked the long build-up to the broad climax. Where Beethoven didn’t specify staccato, the playing often was “very legato“. I was impressed by the sonority in the crescendo pizzicato segment in the second half. And by the emphatic playing at the climax of the movement, where the musical appears to be exhausted.
IV. Thème Russe: Allegro
In this quartet, the Thème russe is in the final movement. (The second of the “Razumovsky” quartets has it in the Trio / Maggiore part of the third movement.) This Allegro was taken very fast, at the limits of what is technically doable. It was so fast that intensification was possible only by slightly broadening the pace. However, one needed to listen very carefully (and probably know the music well) to locate one or the other of the very rare, small mishaps in this or in the second movement. Even at this level of playing, perfection has its limitation!
Encore — Bartók: String Quartet No.4 in C major, Sz.91 / BB 95 — IV. Allegretto pizzicato
Just last year (October 2016), the Jerusalem Quartet has issued a recording of the string quartets No.2, 4, and 6 by Béla Bartòk (1881 – 1945). As encore, the Jerusalem Quartet offered the fourth movement, Allegretto pizzicato from String Quartet No.4 in C major, Sz.91 / BB 95. Bartók composed this in Budapest, in late summer 1928. It’s a very virtuosic fun movement, very exquisite, played entirely without bow, i.e., plucked throughout. Enthralling, with strong, almost extreme dynamic contrasts. Needless to say that the audience was enthused!
The third of the quartet concerts was another, true highlight. Yet, it was again entirely different from the two preceding events. I could briefly characterize the three concerts, i.e., the three ensembles as follows:
- Gringolts Quartet: both emotionally historicizing, as well as dramatic and revolutionary, focused and intense, engaged.
- Cuarteto Casals: instrumentally historicizing, but otherwise more conventional (also regarding the use of vibrato), closer to the “mainstream” view, musically.
- Jerusalem Quartet: conventional in instrumentation, expression, articulation, etc.—however, with technical and musical mastership at the highest possible level.
The Jerusalem Quartet appears to have reached a technical and musical level that many leading ensembles of the past 50 years may strive (or may have strived) for. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. Let me just refer to examples of past quartet formations, such as the Alban Berg Quartett, Quartetto Italiano, Melos Quartett Stuttgart. Those looking for “conventional type” interpretations (assuming they don’t have any already, or they are dissatisfied with existing recordings) might safely pick recordings of the Jerusalem Quartet. From the above performance, I can pretty much guarantee satisfaction.
This recommendation does not apply to hardcore enthusiasts of the more frugal sound of period instruments, light articulation, i.e., “historically correct” interpretations with the appropriate instruments, strings and bows. The interpretations by the Gringolts Quartet in my opinion can easily exist (and thrive) alongside those by the Jerusalem Quartet and many others. In my opinion, they offer more, stronger character and individuality, more expressivity. And they at least have the potential to “talk” to the listener more directly (they certainly did with me!). However, they also have the potential to polarize. They may leave behind, maybe even repel (see the bottom of my note on the performance by the Cuarteto Casals) those who are not willing—or not able—to accept extreme emotionality and engagement.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review