Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Beethoven & Bartók

jerusalem-quartet

Jerusalem String Quartet (Alexander Pavlosky and Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 16 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07b28t8

Available until 14 June

What’s the music?

Beethoven – String Quartet in G major, Op.18/2 (1798-1800) (25 minutes)

Bartók – String Quartet no.6 (1939) (32 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. The Jerusalem Quartet have recently recorded Beethoven’s first published set of string quartets – of which this concert’s work is the second, while the Bartók appears here in a recording made by his fellow compatriots, the Takács Quartet:

About the music

Beethoven took a little while before letting himself on the string quartet discipline. This was in part due to Haydn’s formidable example, but also because he was writing in other forms of chamber music beforehand, such as the string trio, piano trio and wind quintet. When he did finally arrive at the quartet it was with a set of six pieces that gradually challenged several aspects of Haydn’s string quartet model. Perhaps the most obvious was the use of a scherzo (a more witty movement) over the minuet, an approach Haydn was moving towards but which Beethoven perfected.

The sixth and last of Bartók’s ground-breaking string quartets is viewed as the composer’s response to the onset of war. It is a deeply profound work, especially as the composer begins each of the four movements with a slow and sorrowful introduction. In the second and third movements this gives way to energetic Hungarian dance music, with a considerable strength of feeling that on occasion is tinged with bitterness. Once the final movement arrives the slow music has taken over to such an extent that it runs throughout, providing a profound final statement for a fine if occasionally difficult work.

Performance verdict

The Jerusalem Quartet have been playing the music of Bartók for some time now, culminating in a recording to be released in the Autumn. It showed clearly in this performance, for the Sixth String Quartet made a very strong impact. Their cohesion in the slow introductions was admirable, particularly in the power of the viola and cello solos, while the sardonic dance forms accessed by the composer in the middle movements were crisp in their rhythmic execution.

The Bartók made an ideal contrast with the Beethoven, which was good humour personified – with some nice jokes around the edges and a few more brusque statements that gave clues for the master’s future development. Again the quartet have spent a lot of time with Beethoven’s early work, and they clearly enjoyed the high spirited tunes and the poised dialogue that goes with them.

As an encore we had more Bartók, the pizzicato movement from his String Quartet no.4 – and again ensemble and execution were impeccable.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

1:21 –  A fresh, genial start. Very polite and charming – with a first section repeated at 3:14. Beethoven then develops his ideas from 4:59 and a slight shadow appears, the music now in the minor key. This does not last long, mind, for Beethoven returns to his original material in exceptionally good humour.

9:22 – The slow movement, an equally bright and positive piece of work. The tune itself is straightforward but memorable. At 11:35 Beethoven presents a much faster interlude, but just a minute later we return to the safety of the slow movement.

15:34 – even compared to the first two movements this one – the Scherzo – has a big smile on its face, and the quartet are huddled closely together, seemingly in discussion. At 17:27 the music takes a new direction, harking back a little to the slow movement – and then at 19:15 Beethoven cleverly works things back around to the main tune.

20:38 – the last movement is again a genial piece of music, though this time there is more of the characteristic Beethoven cut and thrust.

Bartók

28:33 – a slow and sad elegy from the viola begins the Sixth Quartet, the instrument alone for some time before the others join – and from there on the mood is one of restlessness and anguish. Bartók uses some strikingly dissonant chords, but the ensemble is kept close together – and each of the four instruments has its turn to speak. The harmonic language is complex but not without a key centre.

36:59 – this time the sad melody is assigned to the cello, and takes place over an unsettling rustle of tremolos from the other three instruments. Then at 38:23 a sudden change in mood as Bartók introduces a ‘recruiting dance’ (or Verbunkos in Hungarian) – which is the music played during military recruiting. It has a bitter edge but also touches of humour on the edges. Then around 40:50 a passage of extraordinary intensity, where the piercing higher register of the cello completely takes the lead in a striking tune. The movement continues in a fraught mood.

45:30 – the quartet unite in the sadness that begins the third movement, and each movement finds these periods of reflection getting longer. When the focus changes at 47:15 it is to a ‘Burletta’ – and at 47:26 you can hear the first and second violins playing the same melody – almost – as they are separated by just a quarter tone. There is a plaintive, folksy feel to some of this music, while the louder passages have a much more aggressive stance.

53:27 – a fourth slow introduction, and this one is probably the saddest of all in mood and concentrated in feeling. The quartet is close together throughout, at times speaking with one voice.

Further listening

If the Op.18 set of Beethoven appeals then I strongly recommend the Jerusalem Quartet’s new recording of all six works – fresh and vividly recorded.

Recommending a piece to complement the Bartók is very difficult, but it makes sense to explore another work written in 1939 by the composer for strings – his well-loved Divertimento, part of a disc recorded by Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

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