Monday, 24 May 2010

Jerusalem Quartet/Power - Mozart and Janáček, 22 May 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.20 in D major, KV 499, ‘Hoffmeister’
Janáček – String Quartet no.1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Mozart – String Quintet in C major, KV 515

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

What a pleasure it was to welcome the Jerusalem Quartet and Lawrence Power back to the Wigmore Hall. In March, they played a Mozart quartet and quintet alongside the Debussy quartet; this time, Janáček was the ‘second composer’, equally well served.

The Hoffmeister Quartet, KV 499, received a reading that generally balanced – a crucial word with Mozart – elegance and richness of tone, contrapuntal clarity and harmonic direction. Where many players would have been tempted, probably more than tempted, to rush the opening Allegretto, Allegretto is what we heard. Mozart’s sinuous chromaticism beguiled. The vigorous development section truly, purposefully developed the thematic material, bringing to mind the German Durchführung: this section provides proportional balance but there is much more to it than that. I very much liked the throwaway coda: not too much, just enough. The minuet was excellent, its pace and swing permitting Mozart’s chromaticism once again to tell. Tone was properly Viennese, without a hint of the fashionably astringent. After that, the trio provided a proper contrast, its brooding minor-mode character looking forward to Beethoven. It was a relief to greet an Adagio that was an Adagio, rather than a modishly fast movement such as we hear too all often. The key to this is to have the measure of long phrases and of the detailed writing within. There were some beautiful first violin flights of fantasy from Alexander Pavlosvsky and rich-toned duetting between him and Amihai Grosz. Quite rightly, however, shadows were never too distant; I was put in mind of the slow movement to the G major piano concerto, KV 453. I missed a little more sparkle in the finale, but the quartet’s richness of tone compensated, likewise the density of counterpoint that yet never sounded didactic.

That, however, was my sole reservation concerning the evening’s performance. There followed a marvellous account of Janáček’s first string quartet. The opening bar immediately plunges us into the composer’s unmistakeable sound-world. Longing and vitality were two sides of the same musical coin, ever suffused in lyricism. Repetition and modification of short figures formed the cellular basis for greater musical spans. The second movement shared these characteristics but now in the form of a strange, interrupted polka, vehement and tender, albeit with a bias towards the former. Sadness characterised the third movement, again interruptedly so, on this occasion by truly coruscating tremolando playing on the bridge. There was violence here, which miraculously blossomed into songs of ardent love: not unshakeable, and therefore all the more convincing. The passion of the final movement was again utterly credible, not least for its non-romanticised qualification, for there was startling rawness of emotion in the performance, an ever-present sense of decidedly non-folksy Moravian roots. And yet, there was ecstasy too, an ecstasy that connected the quartet with the composer’s operatic writing in The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa. I have not heard a more convincing, all-consuming performance than this.

Lawrence Power once again joined the players for a Mozart quintet, on this occasion KV 515 in C major. The richness of tone previously heard deepened still further, providing a cushion of velvet upon which Mozart’s melodic twists – how he surprises us with the expected! – to be properly loved, likewise the carefully-crafted irregular phrasing. (How he there reassures us with the unexpected!) There was especial joy to be had in the first movement from Kyril Zlotnikov’s rising cello arpeggio figures: sensitively yet ardently voiced, as life-affirming and yet also as prophetic of Schubert as anything in Mozart. The performance was vocal and conversational throughout, without the slightest hint of the routine; always one felt that the music was of supreme importance, which of course it is. Had I been counting, I should have lost track of the number of occasions on which I smiled knowingly, so much was there to relish. By Mozart’s standards, the minuet is a little dour, or perhaps I simply have not learned to appreciate it. At any rate, the passages in thirds showed how much, in more than one sense, the players were truly in harmony with each other. The trio, however, is an utter delight, graceful and sinuous in performance, fun too: this music has it all. Grosz and Pavlovsky once again seized the opportunity to shine in the slow movement, supported and responded to by every other musician. Control of line was impeccable throughout, with none of the short-breathed phrasing – or rather non-phrasing – all the rage in fashionable quarters. If I had entertained the odd doubt about the finale to the Hoffmeister quartet, I had none in this case. The final movement pulsated with life: sounding easy, though it is of course anything but, voiced with a fine tonal quality one could readily take for granted but should not. Pavlovsky provided some ravishing portamenti, though never for their own sake. The movement as a whole had the character of a dashing sonata-rondo, even if the form is a little more tricky to define, for there was a serious developmental side to it that was neither overlooked nor overplayed. Balance again… I am sorely tempted to describe this as a great performance. Let us hope that the Jerusalem Quartet and Power will record this and the other Mozart quintets. Some Janáček too, please!