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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Shostakovich Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, Monday, February 9th, 2004, 1pm (CC)

Perhaps surprising that a young string quartet should pack out the Wigmore on a Monday lunchtime, but the Jerusalem Quartet have obviously gathered quite a following. Founded in 1993, the quartet won the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, 2003. The prize includes concerts in London and Amsterdam with Mitsuko Uchida.

The Jerusalem Quartet has many qualities. It plays with great vitality and ensures that the entire dynamic range is used – here is, indeed, the full enthusiasm of youth. So pianissimi are real pianissimi, and they can play with all the élan this music requires.

The coupling of Beethoven’s D major Quartet, Op. 18 No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Ninth was an interesting one. The Beethoven quartet (which dates from 1798) suited the Jerusalem Quartet well, although initial doubts as to first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s tone and tuning were to reappear during the course of the performance. It was in the inner parts that the most impressive elements of this account lay in the intertwining of lines and in the instrumental dialogues. A pity the tempo of the second movement was just under the ‘con moto’ qualifier of the Andante, as there was evidence of a resolute refusal to be somnambulistic. Just that tiny bit more movement would have brought the experience fully to life.

Whether it was that the quartet had warmed up for the last two movements or not, there is no denying that there was more to admire in the latter half of Beethoven’s quartet. The dark Trio contrasted perfectly with the sharply etched accents of the Scherzo while the Haydnesque cheek and forward energy of the finale still contained space for the music to breathe.

The Wigmore audience was perhaps not prepared for the concentrated intimacy and sometimes stark experimentalism of Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet as there was a fair amount of shuffling, some talking and even some snoring going on. A pity as this can hardly be classed as ‘modern’ music these days (in fact it was hardly cutting-edge modernism when it was written, in 1964). Perhaps it was the undeniably disturbing aspects of the music that were the problem – one could imagine Shostakovich himself being happy that this has not become ‘easy’ music in any way. The Jerusalem Quartet certainly did not treat it as such, mercilessly projecting the restless obsessions that lie at the core of the opening Moderato con moto. The dislocated jauntiness in a movement that is incapable of standing still led to an Adagio where, despite well projected voila playing the quartet found it hard to sustain the soul-bared stasis. It was in the fourth movement (another Adagio) that Shostakovich is at his most daring, a sort of naked repose that certainly seemed to unnerve this audience – the disjunct pizzicato lines were almost too much to bear.

If the finale gave good contrast, it could perhaps have demonstrated more violence. The music speaks of the emotional pain of late Beethoven, an intensity the Jerusalem Quartet was keen to project, particularly in the fugal passages. Rightly, risks were taken. Not all of them came off, but that is the price, and the excitement, of real live performance.

The encore, the Largo sostenuto from Smetana’s First String Quartet was a lovely, and substantial, bonus.

Colin Clarke




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