Thursday 17 February 2022

Jerusalem Quartet - Beethoven (2), 16 February 2022

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.2 in G major, op.18 no.2
String Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2
String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130, with Grosse Fuge, op.133

Alexander Pavolvsky, Sergei Bressler (violins)
Jonathan Brown (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

For the second in its series of five concerts offering the complete (canonical) Beethoven quartets, the Jerusalem Quartet followed its programming practice in the first. Whereas last month, we heard the first of the ‘early’, the first of the ‘middle-period’, and the first of the ‘late’ quartets, here we heard the second in each category, a satisfying and thoughtful alternative to either a strictly chronological survey or one that combined the works according to other criteria. One surprise change was that of the violist; Ori Kam had fallen ill and been replaced by the excellent Jonathan Brown, doubtless to the relief of all concerned. 

The G major Quartet, op.18 no.2, opened with Mozartian grace. One of the questions to be asked in the movement as a whole, and to a certain extent throughout the work, was the degree to which that would prove recognisably post-Mozartian. An infectious vitality, perhaps already with a tiny hint that what was possible for Mozart was no longer for Beethoven, informed and animated what we heard. (A nagging voice reminds me of Furtwängler’s words: ‘I have always devoted a great deal of thought to the word vital. It is a word of intellectuals for intellectuals. … Mozart and Beethoven are not vital, but simply beautiful, great, good, what they want to be. What highly praised modern art expresses: Vitalität.’ I am not quite so sure, but never mind.) At any rate, this was fresh playing, unburdened by any such doubts, suggesting (almost) a whole career ahead for the composer. A truly startling development section surprised, even when one ‘knew’ or thought one did, nothing taken for granted. So too did a developing recapitulation, Haydn’s pupil excelling himself with timing of surprises. The Adagio cantabile progressed with that somewhat complex grace characteristic of early Beethoven slow movements, interrupted by a kinetic outpouring almost ‘late’ in quality. The relationship may be less fractured, but the shock, again even when one knew, nonetheless made us listen. It came to rest of a sort, necessitating the scherzo in a not entirely dissimilar relationship. Full of youthful energy and again full of surprises, the performance displayed Beethoven’s character and resourcefulness—that transition back to scherzo from trio, for instance—to excellent effect.  The finale was clearly in Haydn’s line, that crucial issue of character well judged. Yet its waywardness, wilfulness, and even wildness were heard to be unmistakeably Beethoven’s own. Tonal jumps and slides were good-humoured yet not without edge. And how it developed! 

Rhetorical drama between different material and tendencies was brought to the fore in the first movement of the second Razumovsky Quartet. The Jerusalem Quartet deployed a palette with a broad array of dynamic contrasts, yes, but so much more besides: attack, articulation, bowing, vibrato, and so on, a masterclass in string playing. This is not easy music, but nor was it rendered obscure, concision and direction key to that achievement, as scale and scope were rendered thrillingly immediate. The slow movement sounded initially simpler, more songful, at least on the surface, yet so much more lay beneath—and increasingly, on the surface too. It received an eloquent, deeply moving performance, sublimity earned, not assumed. There will have been more ‘beautiful’ accounts, yet few more truthful. Here was Beethoven craggy, scowling, and, dare I suggest, morally strenuous. Obstreperous yet, again, good-natured, the Allegretto third movement admitted of no easy answers, at times veering almost towards ‘late’ enigma. Its trio sounded as strange as I can recall, suggestive of Bartók, Janáček, and Schoenberg. The sign-off, when it came, was splendidly laconic. The finale was almost a world in itself, quizzical yet determined, also experienced as necessary release from what had preceded it. Victory was not easily won, but the keener for it. 

The first movement of the op.130 Quartet had difficulty speak for itself, with no need to highlight. Emotionally honest, with an inwardness through and even in the fractures, it always permitted of consolation as alternative to the abyss. In the second movement, what initially seemed understated became still more extreme. Its Presto speed was part, yet only part, of that. A fine, necessary balance was struck between the horizontal and vertical in the ever-mysterious third movement, its processes not only audible but well-nigh visible. Excellent democracy between all four players was crucial. The fourth movement emerged almost as if a mirror image, inverted, of its predecessor, yet moved in quite a different direction, properly disorienting. The ‘Cavatina’, resolutely unsentimental yet certainly not without sentiment, was heard less with hushed awe—there were occasional passages—than at an unashamedly human level: warm to the extent of passion, and ultimately straightforward. No one would accuse the Grosse Fuge of that, but it struggled heroically toward the all-encompassing: tentative and strident; looking back (to Mozart as much as Bach) as well as forward; forbidding and deeply sympathetic; through lenses of Goethe and Schiller; via Heaven, Hell, and ultimately the playfulness of Earth too. This was Beethoven’s richly divine comedy.