Jerusalem Quartet intelligent and solid in recital

The Jerusalem Quartet (from left): Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Ori Kam, and Kyril Zlotnikov.
The Jerusalem Quartet (from left): Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Ori Kam, and Kyril Zlotnikov. (FELIX BROEDE)
Posted: March 30, 2014

The Jerusalem Quartet is widely considered one of the best of its generation, but the solidity of its playing and interpretive intelligence was barely half the story at Thursday's well-received Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert.

More than in the past, the quartet revealed a stronger, more specific, more evolved personality at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater: While some quartets are a bristling alliance of four strong-minded soloists, the Jerusalem is the ultimate ensemble with a central aesthetic.

Even in Haydn's String QuartetNo. 76 No. 4 (Sunrise), which is so much about the interplay of four near-equal voices, one best remembered the quartet's overall sound, especially the opening chords that gave the quartet its nickname. Few sharp attacks, a fine legato line, and interpretive thoughtfulness reminded you that the group has made two Haydn discs for Harmonia Mundi and isn't about to treat these quartets as throat-clearers for the heavier stuff to come.

And heavier stuff fared even better, especially the Brahms String Quartet in A minor Op. 51 No. 2, which can reward the performers' hard labor with a kind of grinding haze and harmonic opacity. But the Jerusalem Quartet's tendency to go for the meat of any chord, bypassing surface effects such as dramatic attacks, created some of the most transparent Brahms in my experience.

Thus, one better appreciated the piece's daring expansivity. The final movement showed how much this approach is an artistic rather than a technical choice: The players can dig into their instruments as heartily as any of them.

Janacek's String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata) was the concert's one disappointment. While one also appreciated the transparency the Jerusalem Quartet brought to Janacek's gritty harmonies - and the wiry ponticello moments were as arresting as an electric current - the individual solos lacked personality, when they should come off like soliloquies.

One friend boned up for the concert by reading Tolstoy's 1889 Kreutzer Sonata novel, which inspired the quartet, noting that the book's locomotive travel and stabbings were reflected in the music. But Janacek didn't need Tolstoy to employ such techniques in his typically seething manner. And might Janacek have more relevance than Tolstoy's sermons on sexual abstinence?

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