Monday 27 April 2015

Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart, Janáček, and Schubert, 24 April 2015

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.14 in G major, KV 387
Janáček – String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Schubert – String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) 

I wish I were not having to write about this again, but not to mention what happened during the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance of Mozart’s G major String Quartet, KV 387, would be as bizarre as it would be dishonest. It inevitably coloured my response to both the performance of that quartet and the rest of the concert. Once again, protestors at a Jerusalem Quartet concert suddenly, shockingly disturbed performance and listening, by standing up, in this case during the second movement of the Mozart, to shout out their beliefs concerning the Quartet and its relationship to the Israeli state. The players continued to play throughout, which may or may not have been more shocking than if they had been compelled to down their instruments for a while. Eventually, the protestors, only two of them on this occasion, were led from the hall. Yet throughout the rest of the concert, I was on edge – and I cannot think that I was the only person to feel so – lest such an interruption occur again.

I am far from being someone who, whether genuinely or otherwise, believes that somehow music and politics do not mix. Indeed, I have spent a good part of my academic life arguing quite the contrary. Yet I simply cannot bring myself to agree with what happened. I should have nothing against protestors coming to the venue, handing out leaflets, as I have seen them do elsewhere, engaging members of the audience in discussion. However, violently to disrupt a concert in such fashion is, for one thing, extremely unlikely to achieve anything to further their cause; if anything, I should think it likely to turn some members of the audience against it. Moreover, it is, especially if one is listening with the intent that such a concert and such a programme demand, really quite disturbing, even frightening, to experience such a disruption. Of course, no one in his right mind would say that such an experience is in any sense comparable to what many Palestinians suffer on a daily basis. But the players of the Jerusalem Quartet, whatever use may be made of them by the Israeli state, are not simply to be equated with that state, whatever proponents of a cultural boycott might claim. Moreover, it is simply not the case that everyone in the audience is blithely sitting there, unaware of such issues, unreflective and uncaring; one does not have the right to force one’s own response to very difficult questions upon others. I can – and do – respect the arguments that lead some to stay away; there might, however, be more respect shown for those of us who have genuinely tried to grapple with the arguments and who have decided, sometimes with doubts, upon another course of action. It is certainly less than clear to me that, say, British recipients of public cultural funding under New Labour, when the state, much to the consternation of many of its citizens, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, should have been treated entirely differently.

Given that context, my remarks on the performances will be relatively brief; shaken as I was by what happened, I was not able to listen as I should have wished to. The players, insofar as I could tell, offered an admirable performance of the Mozart quartet. Tempi were apposite, permitting joy and melancholy to coexist, indeed to interact, as they should. The first movement seemed, as befits the first of Mozart’s ‘Haydn Quartets’, to take its lead from the elder composer, without overlooking, whether here or later, the almost operatic sensibility that infuses so much of Mozart’s œuvre. There may be Sturm und Drang in the conventional sense in the second movement, but that was quite overshadowed by external events; the beauty of the players’ performance nevertheless remained, rendering the contrast all the more disturbing – in all manner of ways. The slow movement was songful, almost painfully so, yet again it is difficult for me to say more. I was perhaps less convinced by the finale, in which I wondered whether some of the performance strained a little too much towards emphasis of the ‘learned’ counterpoint, rather than letting it speak for itself. But its general thrust was unarguable; and again, given the circumstances, it is difficult to say more.

Janáček’s Intimate Letters received a scorching performance; perhaps it scorched all the more in the light of what had happened. The extraordinary opening lacked nothing in either modernistic exploration or late Romantic passion. Some of the passages in harmonics, viola and cello in particular, sounded almost as if they had come from thirty years later, yet remained anchored in the composer’s own harmonic language. The ardent quality, seemingly believing in every note, of the players’ response to the entire performance had one listen as if it were given – and heard – in but a single, extended breath. Folk rhythms were never mere folk rhythms; ‘effects’ were never mere effects. And the third movement’s climactic confrontation, so clearly inspired by the composer’s love for Kamila Stösslová, yet equally clearly rising above such particularity, proved duly shattering.   

I am not sure I have heard a more furious account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, though I am not at all sure how much of that was again a product of the circumstances, whether in performance or in listening. If the first movement seemed, to begin with, to look towards Bruckner – I thought in particular of the Ninth Symphony – then, as its workings became more complex, it was increasingly Mahler who came to mind. Great care was taken both to characterise each of the second movement’s individual variations, and yet to give shape to the movement as a whole. If there were hope offered during the turn to the major mode – and that is a big ‘if’ – then it was equivocal hope indeed. A defiant scherzo was founded securely upon harmonic rhythm, as such movements must be, to have their proper import. (Too often, one hears rhythm but little harmony.) The Totentanz of the final movement proved terrifying in any number of ways. I realise that such remarks are at best, excessively generalised, but hope that the reader will understand why, on this particular occasion, I am not able to say much more.