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:

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: