Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Jerusalem Quartet, Haydn, 10 February 2009

Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet in C major, op.33 no.3, ‘The Bird’
Haydn – String Quartet in G minor, op.74 no.3, ‘Rider’
Haydn – String Quartet in F minor, op.20 no.5
Haydn – String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1

Alexander Pavlovsky (violin)
Sergei Bresler (violin)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

This was another wonderful instalment in the Wigmore Hall’s Haydn bicentenary celebrations, presenting all of the composer’s string quartets from op.20 onwards. The programmes are, in refreshingly non-bureaucratic style, taking different forms. For instance, the Hagen Quartet performed all six of the op.76 set over two evenings, of which I caught the second. By contrast, the Jerusalem Quartet presented a selection of four quartets ranging across Haydn’s career. One appreciates a certain degree of technical development, it is true; more noteworthy, however, is the sheer inventiveness and matching of form to content in all four of these works. The Jerusalem Quartet’s excellent performances certainly furthered that appreciation.

Op. 33 no.3 has been nicknamed ‘The Bird’. The lively voicing of the opening movement’s acciaccaturas imparted an incidental avian pleasure; more importantly, the players were alert to the context of those crushed notes, which by turn amused, intensified, and beguiled. Here, as throughout the recital, the movement’s form was clearly delineated, yet in a sense that heightened the import of the apparently ‘incidental’. Even in 1781 – and arguably considerably before this – Haydn was pre-empting Beethoven, as we heard in the song-like scherzo. Mozartian parallels – or foreshadowing – came to the fore in its trio, scored for just the two violins. By the same token, one never felt that this was anyone other than Haydn himself. The beautiful Adagio proved endlessly melodic, not least in Alexander Pavlovsky’s increasingly ornate – written-out – ornamentation of the repeated first section. In this, he was aided by excellent harmonic and melodic support below the first violin line. The Presto rondo finale brought not only a change of mood and tempo, but also, as throughout the concert, a true sense of the tempi of individual movements being proportionate to one another and therefore an understanding of the quartet as a whole. What I slightly missed here was a somewhat greater earthiness but that was an extremely rare reservation to most distinguished quartet-playing.

With the ‘Rider’ quartet, its key of G minor might lead one to expect a closeness to Mozart. The triple time of the first movement might initially suggest shades of the minuet of the great G minor symphony, KV 550. Haydn’s muse develops, however, into something quite other, combining relative tragedy – certainly not on the scale of Mozart – with a charming rusticity in the major-mode second subject, here swung delightfully. The pulse of the slow movement sounded just right. A great number of conductors could learn from the practice of chamber music, given the present tendency to rush similar orchestral movements, likewise from the Jerusalem Quartet’s natural, unassuming rubato. Their sweet-toned vibrato was indicative of an eminently musical approach that rejected bogus notions of ‘authenticity’. The players presented a Gluckian noble simplicity, whilst at times looking forward to Schubert in their plumbing of emotional depths that have often, unthinkingly, been denied to Haydn. Progressive ornamentation was beautifully handled, in a fashion that heightened the emotional intensity of Haydn’s great Largo assai. The sun could shine through in the G major minuet – and it did. By contrast, its trio brought sterner moments and an intelligent handling of its chromaticism, always sure of where Haydn’s harmonies were leading us. A serious note was struck with the onset of the finale, but soon grace and high spirits quite rightly jostled for our attention. Pavlovsky’s solos were despatched with great élan, yet as ever ‘only’ as first amongst equals.

The F minor quartet, op.20 no.5 gave us a taste of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang, albeit tempered by a keen sense of the tightness of the composer’s construction. Every note sounded rightly essential. Tension in the opening Moderato’s development was revealed as inherent in the compositional material, not as some ‘expression’ somehow to be ‘applied’ to it. The bursting forth of the recapitulation likewise sounded absolutely necessary, leaving us full of expectation for the ensuing minuet. Here, once again, the give and take of the players’ rubato sounded as natural as could be; indeed, not once in this recital did I detect the slightest hint of any mannerism. The nicely lilting trio brought tonal relief with its major mode. With the ensuing siciliano rhythms of the Adagio, we were once again granted the opportunity to hear first violin flights of fancy above, exquisitely performed by Pavlovsky. In the fugal finale, counterpoint was clear yet never ‘abstract’. Figuration that in some senses might look back to the Baroque sonata da chiesa nevertheless sounded very much of the Classical period, melding seamlessly into the musical argument.

With the first movement of op.77 no.1, the players immediately captured the almost – but not quite – Mozartian mood of a charming serenade-march, before demonstrating to us that the real thing is the development of Haydn’s material. The Adagio is yet another of Haydn’s great slow movements. Here, I was especially struck by Kyril Zlotnikov’s rich-toned ’cello underpinning to the movement’s harmonic momentum. In its expansiveness, this movement, especially as performed here, projected an inerrant sense of the unfolding of a great tonal plan, almost the musical equivalent to the wondrous eighteenth-century revelations of Newtonian science. The dying away at the movement’s close was exquisite. In the minuet and trio, we again hear Haydn stealing from music’s Beethovenian future. The rhythmic security and confidence of the Jerusalem players stood them in good stead for the good-natured humour of the trio. Finally, we came to the truly singular Presto, in which the Lydian colouring of the principal theme almost makes one wonder whether this is Bartók rather than Haydn. The performers wisely did not exaggerate this aspect, letting the music speak for itself; grotesquerie would have been quite out of place. Yet the insistence of that astonishing sharpened fourth nevertheless shone through. This remained, of course, quartet music, but the players did not shy from conveying an entirely appropriate kinship with some of Haydn’s contemporary symphonic finales. What a joy it was to hear Haydn performed with such zest and musical intelligence as here!