Monday, 20 June 2016

Jerusalem Quartet/Kam - Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms, 17 June 2016

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – String Quartet no.6 in B-flat major, op.18 no.6
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115

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

This proved to be another excellent concert in the Jerusalem Quartet’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations. The final quartet from Beethoven’s op.18 set opened in immaculate, fizzing post-Haydn and post-Mozart style, judging so well the debts to both composers, as well as the undeniable originality of their challenger. The first movement’s exposition was possessed of great energy, its ‘repeat’ – something of a misnomer in a properly dynamic performance such as this – still more so. The second group thus sounded (both times) all the more contrasted, especially melting the second time around. Announcing the development’s opening phrase with Beethovenian brusqueness, the players nevertheless acknowledged once again the composer’s inheritance from Haydn – who, after all, could be a little terse himself – in several respects, not least motivic working. The recapitulation’s concision was striking; so was the reality that everything, even when, especially when, it seemed the same, had changed. The slow movement was as serene, as disturbing, as full of mystery as its counterpart in, say, a Mozart piano concerto, never more so than when it moved into the minor mode. This was, initially, the Beethoven of the operatic scena, a quality captured to near perfection here. With the return to the tonic, however, invention and joy were as ‘purely’ instrumental as one might imagine. Syncopations were relished in all their generative glory in the scherzo. The trio likewise hit just the right note: trying to relax, yet never quite being able to do so.

‘La Malincolia’ is Beethoven’s marking for the Adagio introduction to the finale. Its indubitably melancholic fragility looked forward, without exaggeration, to the world of the late quartets, not least in the rarity of the air it breathed. The passion characterising the music that ensued, in the Allegretto quasi Allegro, had an almost Schubertian quality to it, punctuated by the fondest of glances back to the music of Beethoven’s eighteenth-century precursors. Insistence, subtly marked out in performance, left one in no doubt that this was Beethoven. Likewise the musical interruptions, the strange turns the music took: perhaps born of, yet never reducible to, the example of Haydn. The players left one in no doubt of their consummate command of idiom and, dare I suggest, meaning.

Bartók has as good a claim as any to be the greatest of all successors to Beethoven in this genre. It would, at any rate, have been impossible to dissent from such a view in the light of this performance. The Prima parte of the Third Quartet opened in properly disconcerting fashion, at least for a few bars or so, followed by a slight thaw, followed by a glance back, or an intensification: so the music’s multiple dialectics began to develop. Lest that sound unduly abstract – I am not sure one can be unduly abstract in this of all Bartók’s quartets, but anyway – there was genuine anger to be heard too, then withdrawal. This was Bartók at his most radical, his greatest. Concision and mood swings suggested Beethoven’s example – perhaps even something of Webern too, although most likely qualities in common rather than ‘influence’. There was certainly no denying that every note counted: in itself, horizontally, and vertically.

The Seconda parte, quite properly, both emerged from and announced its difference from what had gone before. Something akin to tonality advanced a claim, all the more touching for the combination of strength of assertion and equivocal success. What could be more Beethovenian than the protean dynamism we heard here? The so-called Ricapitulazione della prima parte and Coda proved both questing and questioning, with a sadness all their own. Glassy, febrile passages almost suggested Ligeti, and yet they were thoroughly integrated with neo-Lisztian transformation of the ‘Hungarian’: another description that raises more questions than it answers. What music this is!

Sharon Kam joined the players for the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in the second half. The two violins of Alexander Pavlovksy and Sergei Bresler immediately announced a different world, of Viennese sweetness, melancholy, and melancholy in sweetness, with all the painful lateness and distance that are Brahms’s own. That distance was intensified by the entries of the other players, not least the parallel or successor announcement of what might be at stake by Ori Kam and Kyril Zlotnikov, on viola and cello. Kam entered, seemingly more a mediator than a ‘soloist’, or rather no ‘mere’ soloist. The motivic complexity of Brahms’s writing is inescapable here. (Why should anyone wish to escape it?) So too, however, was its good-natured quality – still, perhaps, grasping Mozart’s mantle. On the other hand, there were times when we sounded but a stone’s throw from Verklärte Nacht. There were to come some exquisite, yes soloistic, whisperings from the clarinet, especially in the development section of this first movement, whose optimistic exhaustion, if I may call it that, put me in mind of Mendelssohn. The recapitulation sounded more autumnal, yet also more intense, not least motivically: such is the dynamism of form, of developing variation. A well-nigh Beethovenian climax truly surprised and truly fulfilled, after which the players sang with the truest of melancholy.

The Adagio sounded ‘later’ still, which I think it probably is. Its exhaustion was nevertheless the setting for rare solo gems indeed (not just from the clarinet, by any means), in which ghosts of the Viennese past were to be encountered, even welcomed. Nevertheless, it was the clarinet which, rightly, emerged as first among equals, Kam’s arabesques both free and yet laden down with the accumulated weight of tradition that Brahms felt so keenly. Post-Beethovenian serenity vied with anticipations of Schoenberg: layer upon layer. The third movement, by way of relative contast, sounded summery (if still ‘late’ summery). Motivic integrity and fascination remained as great as ever; there was nothing comfortable to what we heard, underlying agitation suggestive again both of Beethoven and of Schoenberg. The finale sounded wonderfully ambivalent, ambiguous. Once more, every note counted, just as it had in the Bartók Quartet, but the sense of tragedy here was almost Mozartian, all the more poignant for knowing that it never quite would or could be.