In a superb lesson in how to accommodate different musical styles without losing a unique musical voice, the Jerusalem String Quartet journeyed through an elegant Mozart, a fevered Brahms, and a brash Shostakovich. Dallas Chamber Music presented the group at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium on Monday evening as part of their outstanding series, which has been stellar this year.
Made up of violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov, the quartet of young musicians all met as students at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance. In a world where talented string quartets proliferate, the Jerusalem has a uniquely homogenized sound. While all four voices are easily discernable, no one sonority sticks out as even vaguely different. They produce a creamy and unified sound as if they were all playing on matched instruments even though this is not the case. The instruments range form a Storioni violin made in 1770 to an Iizuka viola custom made in 2007. However, heard in the aggregate, the sound is amazingly unified.
This sonority was on it best behavior in Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K. 421. While it was not noticeable that they were making a hat-tip to classical performance standards while listening, once you heard the rest of the program, it was apparent in retrospect that they did. They took a graceful approach to the Andante and let the menuetto dance. The last movement gave us our first chance to hear the Iizuka viola in Kam's able hands. It is impressive indeed.
The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 116 was another matter. The transition from the Mozart was eased by the modest nature of the first movement. It even echoed the repeated note pattern that ended the previous quartet. In the second movement, marked Allegretto furioso, the players took their interpretive lead from the second word of that tempo marking. Furioso, indeed. They gave it a rough-hewn and borderline barbaric reading, so much so that second violinist Bresler broke a string. When he returned, they started the movement again with even more aggression than before. The anguished Adagio led directly to the last movement, which vanished as opposed to having a definite ending.
Brahms got a full-throated romantic reading from the Jerusalem players. His String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 dates from Brahms in his prime. In fact, Arnold Schoenberg used it as an example of how progressive Brahms was harmonically, when he was considered to be relatively fuddy-duddy in comparison to his highly spiced contemporary, Richard Wagner. While the melodic Brahms is mostly missing from this work, its intricacies and motivically unified structure makes it a perfect vehicle to admire the composer's craft.
The quartet played it for all it is worth, and that is considerable. Gone was the restrained approach we heard in the Mozart, as was the no-holds-barred onslaught we heard in the Shostakovich. Strings were lovingly bowed and richly vibrated, as opposed to attacked and broken. The Jerusalem Quartet's combination of an overall "sound" combined with the ability to make the individual voices heard was the perfect combination for hearing Brahms' quartet anew. Never one of his biggest hits, this performance moved the A minor quartet up a considerable way up on my favorites list.
The audience loved it and gave the four youngsters a rousing, and much-deserved, ovation.