Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Haydn & Bartók

Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo of Jerusalem Quartet Felix Broede

The subtitle for this concert on the BBC Sounds website is ‘Quartet Masters’ – which is spot on when you consider the contributions both Haydn and Bartók made to this intimate form of chamber music. The string quartet – two violins, viola and cello – has presented composers with both challenge and inspiration over its 250-year existence, and even as I type this there is no sign of the form dying out.

A big part of the credit should go to Haydn, whose quartets are often used at the beginning of a program such as this. Sometimes that means the consistent quality of his work is overlooked, but there was no doubt of that happening in this performance from the Jerusalem Quartet.

Theirs was a red blooded performance, with a glossy texture to the luxurious string sound, aided by plenty of vibrato on the string. Such an approach would not have worked in the composer’s earlier quartets, but was more appropriate here for one of the six published in 1799 as the composer’s Op.76, his most mature statements yet as a quartet composer.

The ‘Fifths’ is so named because of the melodic interval Haydn uses between the two notes at the very start (2:10 on the BBC Sounds link) This motif becomes an integral part of the quartet, and as the first movement progresses it can be frequently heard. The Jerusalem Quartet’s bold performance gains more charm in the second movement (9:25), a light and relatively gentle dance. Alexander Pavlovsky’s intonation went a little awry here but not for long.

In the third movement, a darkly coloured Minuet (15:18), the quartet impress greatly, divided in two as the two violins’ melody is shadowed by the grainy tones of viola player Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov in impressive unison. The clouds part for a central Trio section with a rustic feel (16:44) before the obdurate theme returns (18:16) The fourth movement, initially quite furtive (19:10), blossoms into an affirmative finish.

Bartók had already confirmed his outright mastery of the string quartet form by the time he reached his Third Quartet of 1927, and the Fourth, completed a year later, achieves if anything a greater level of innovation in sound, together with strong melodic content and the use of connecting ideas between the five movements.

Bartók was obsessed with symmetrical forms, and the dimensions of the Fourth feel wholly right. Its five movements have two intensely concentrated pieces at their outer edge. Movements two and four are Scherzos – which implies they should be witty but the second is ghostly and the fourth otherworldly. The third movement is one of the composer’s classic evocations of the night, with pictorial references to insects and birds as well as dislocated elements of Hungarian folk music.

This performance was right on the money. From the start of the first movement (26:27) the tension is palpable, with a driven approach emphasising Bartók’s dissonant writing but also his melodic invention. The resolution in a pure C major is all the more telling because of it. The second movement (33:10) is marked to be played with all four players using mutes (‘con sordino’) and the ghostly entrails that result chill to the bone – in this case even on a cold January day. The four players shade their contributions exquisitely, preparing us for the central third movement (36:22), a great example of Bartók’s ‘night music’.

The emotional centre of the quartet, this is where time almost stops, and the Jerusalem Quartet captured this feeling immediately with their long, held chords and the songful lines from Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello and Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin. These held a profile close to folk melodies, the other three instruments standing watchfully by.

The fourth movement (42:50) broke us out of these nocturnal dreams, using pizzicato only (each of the four instruments required to pluck rather than use the bow) The folk-like ‘snaps’ against the board of the instrument were very effective, especially on the cello, but so was the thrumming of the violins and viola, which had an enchanting quality.

Finally the fifth movement (46:20) brings a lasting resolution, though it starts with great cut and thrust, using music of dissonance. Later a light-hearted diversion into more folk-based material breaks out, after which we head for a wholly convincing ending, summing up the whole performance perfectly.

A very fine concert, this, which was capped by an encore of the third movement (Minuet) from Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K421 (54:24). Not only did this piece share the same key of the ‘Fifths’ quartet, it is one of a set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, so brought the concert full circle with music of both grit and charm, rather like that of its dedicatee.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/5 ‘Fifths’ (1797-8) (2:10)
Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26:27)

Further listening & viewing

You can watch the Jerusalem Quartet play Bartók’s String Quartet no.4 in a live concert here:

The Jerusalem Quartet have recorded both the works played in this concert, which can be heard on the playlist link below:

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets is one of his very greatest achievements, and you can track the development of his style by listening through chronologically. The later quartets in particular give the most reward to repeated listening, for even 100 or so years on these works are not easy to grasp straight away! The cycle from the Emerson String Quartet remains one of their best recordings:

Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and his Op.76 set – again six quartets – represents the pinnacle of his compositions for the relatively new sound world of two violins, viola and cello. These are good natured works but have considerable depth too, as this recording by the Hungarian Takács String Quartet proves:

Mozart’s six quartets dedicate to Haydn are among his finest chamber works. This recording from the Hagen Quartett includes a particularly fine account of the D minor work from which the Jerusalem Quartet took their encore:

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