Monday 29 March 2010

Jerusalem Quartet/Power - Mozart and Debussy, 27 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.4 in C major, KV 157
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, op.10
Mozart – String Quintet no.4 in G minor, KV 516

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Amihai Grosz, Lawrence Power (violas)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

A surprising mini-renaissance for the early Mozart string quartets: the Zehetmair Quartet gave an excellent performance of the third just a week and a half before; now came an equally fine fourth from the Jerusalem Quartet. Even Hans Keller, who dismissed the early quartets as ‘on the whole, … quite abominable,’ conceded that the C major quartet was a ‘masterly miniature’. So it sounded here, fully on the scale of the oft-underestimated Salzburg symphonies. True Mozartians would know neither to make unduly extravagant claims for the early works, nor to deny the astonishing achievements to be discovered within; only Mozartian nouveaux riches would be so vulgar as to dismiss this work because it is not the Dissonance Quartet. The Jerusalem Quartet did not condescend: KV 157 emerged as far more than the overture its opening bars might initially, winningly suggest. Fundamental to the emergence of something more was the performance, each player listening attentively and responding to his peers: in short, exemplary quartet-playing. I wondered a little about the extent of the ritenuto at the end of the exposition second time around. Was this a little more than the music could take? In any case, if a fault this were, it was a fault that granted the work stature. The slow movement was never rushed, but nor did it drag, and, like the rest of the quartet, it emerged teeming with life, every line counting for something. The Presto finale fizzed, with more than a hint of the opera house, albeit without exceeding its Milanese scale. Most important, the Jerusalem players had discovered the secret of playing fast without sounding hard-driven: all too rare an accomplishment today.

Debussy’s sole quartet followed. Its relatively early date of writing can cause difficulties; those seeking to discover the overtly – or should that, in this composer’s case, read covertly? – impressionistic Debussy should seek elsewhere. Yet, despite Franckian and Russian antecedents, this could only really be Debussy. Not least of the Jerusalem Quartet’s achievements was therefore to place the work in its stylistic context. Tchaikovsky and Borodin were readily apparent influences, without overpowering that sensibility which can only justly be described as Gallic. Implications of the Franckian cyclical inheritance, whatever Debussy may later have said about ‘one of the more notable Flemish composers,’ were seen, or rather heard, through, especially the recurrence and transformation of the opening motto theme. Intimations of the interludes to Pelléas et Mélisande were present without being hammered home: like that work itself, quiet, though not always, in their intensity. The fleetness of the quintuple-time second movement was as noteworthy as the poise of its slow successor: as Debussy requests, Andantino doucement expressif. One could see as well as hear how Sergei Bresler on second violin altered his tone to echo and indeed to develop the veiled opening statement of Amihai Grosz’s viola. Here and elsewhere, a particular joy was to be had from those sections in which Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello led proceedings, the music reverberating from the bottom up. Rameau would have approved…

After the interval, the acknowledged masterpiece: Mozart’s G minor quintet, in which the players were joined by the excellent Lawrence Power as second violist. A natural, properly Mozartian flow was established from the opening bar of the opening Allegro. Mozart’s G minor daemon and its chromatic implications were voiced, but not to the exclusion of the good-natured lyricism of the second subject. A little more possession might have worked, but there is more room for more than one interpretative stance here, and the pay off would come in the recapitulation’s reiteration of the tonic minor, followed by the understated tragedy of the coda. It was a relief not to endure the dreadful exhibitionism that disfigures so much contemporary Mozart performance, likewise in the ensuing minuet and trio, taken at a relatively expansive tempo, and all the better for it in revealing the composer’s ravishing harmonies. The extra viola could truly be relished here. Again, I wondered whether a touch more vehemence might have added something, but this was greatly preferable to overstatement. It was a heaven-sent mercy to hear the slow movement at a tempo that again allowed the music to breathe: how close to Beethoven we stand here! The players furnished dignity and poise, emotion emerging rather than being externally and thus ineffectively applied. Schubert hovered in the introduction to the finale, and then release: a release, however, not infused with haste, but permitting detail to have its motivic place. From Alexander Pavlovksy’s sweet-toned but never sentimental first violin downwards, this Mozart struck a fine balance between urbanity and emotion, the latter present, but never obscuring the work’s structure.