Beethoven – String Quartet no.2 1 in G major, op.18 no.2Bartók – String Quartet no.6
Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)
Bartók’s string quartets are surely as close to the equivalents for the twentieth century of Beethoven’s quartets to the nineteenth as any works for the medium not by Beethoven could be. I should be tempted to add ‘Discuss’; however, in the midst of exam season, the last thing I want is any more essays to mark. Let us take that, then, as read, and say that nothing could be more apt for the Jerusalem Quartet’s celebration of its twentieth anniversary than a series in which it combines works by Beethoven and Bartók.
In this BBC Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall, Beethoven’s G major Quartet, op.18 no.2, came first. The first movement opened with a typically cultivated sound and, just as important, a true sense of life in the music. This was recognisably post-Mozart, post-Haydn, but with some emphasis on the ‘post-’ too, not least in the accents and insistency of Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello part, soon echoed elsewhere, for instance by Alexander Pavolovsky’s first violin, towards the end of the exposition. The exposition repeat was taken, the music heard for the second time fulfilling the twin functions of recollection and progression, the development section thus taking development further still. So did the recapitulation. My only real quibble was the (relative) withdrawal of vibrato for some of the fugal writing, which did not sound as though it were done entirely out of conviction. I loved, however, the (almost) throwaway ending.
The long lines and post-Mozartian luxuriance of the Adagio cantabile sections of the second movement were as striking as their decidedly ‘late’ or ‘late-ish’ Allegro counterparts: not so fragile or disjunct, perhaps, but played – and heard – in the knowledge that such would, in Beethoven’s œuvre, soon become a necessity, the generative quality of the composer’s rhythms notwithstanding. The return of the Adagio cantabile music sounded still more Elysian, yet there was sadness to the close too. Lilting joy and nagging insistence characterised the scherzo: here there were to be experienced both balance and dialectical interplay. The trio was finely poised, rightly, in similar yet contrasting fashion. Haydn’s spirit was present, indeed inescapable, in the opening statement of the finale – and why would anyone wish to escape it? Yet there was soon also a boisterousness to be heard that was not really his. Such were the terms of the human comedy that unfolded.
The first movement of Bartók’s final quartet opened with Ori Kam’s viola, not only mesto as marked but splendidly misterioso, finding its way, asking (lamenting?): how did we (humanity?) come to this and yet, also, where must we go? I thought a little of the opening of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was barely suppressed fury in the ensuing Vivace material, like one of the insufficient instrumental answers prior to the entry of the word in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Except, of course there would be no words: tragedy or another path? Uncertainty, here and elsewhere, seemed very much to be the game (which is not to say that these were ‘uncertain’ performances, quite the contrary.) The intensity of this first movement, and not only this movement, seemed to be part of a despairing attempt to turn inwards in the face of the horrors surrounding. In context, it seems anything but a cheap point to remind us that Bartók wrote the work in 1939, his last prior to leaving Europe.
The return to the mesto material at the beginning of the second movement was more clearly a cry, and yet the terms of that cry remained enigmatic. Cries became stronger still, more passionate, in the Marcia, without ever shaking off the shadow of sadness. Likewise in the third movement, although in both the mesto and the Burletta music, there was perhaps a greater note of bitterness, or was it resignation? The ambiguity was fruitful. What to make of the Stravinskian echoes? That question, not answering it, was surely the point. A Soldier seemed to wish to tell a new Tale; that did not mean that we could, or should, understand it. There was a sense of arrival, of inevitability, and yet also of uncertainty to the final Mesto movement: as finely balanced as the demands of Beethoven. In an atmosphere of serenity that disquieted, here was a destination that seemed at best to be a land of exile. And so it went on, until it did not. Almost the only thing not in doubt was the sincerity of work and performance alike. The rest would be silence.