The Jerusalem String Quartet is a world-renowned quartet based in Israel. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky was born in Ukraine and plays an 1824 Giovanni Pressenda violin. Second violinist Sergei Bresler, also born in Ukraine, plays a 1770 Lorenzo Storioni violin. Violist Ori Kam was born in California, raised in the US and Israel, and plays a contemporary instrument. Cellist Zyril Zlotnikov was born in Belarus and plays a 1710 Francesco Ruggieri instrument formerly played by Jacqueline du Pré and on loan from Daniel Barenboim. The support that Barenboim, Isaac Stern, and others have given to music and musical education in Israel provided the training these players received. The result was the creation of this ensemble twenty years ago. All four members, it might be noted, are immigrants to Israel.
The program, presented by Asheville Chamber Music as part of the Asheville Amadeus Festival, included works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven. This thoroughly Classical program demonstrated clearly the position of Mozart’s music in the evolution of the string quartet. Haydn was the father of the string quartet, and his compositional style retained elements of a solo with accompaniment. Mozart integrated the quartet, treating the four instruments equally. Beethoven carried the process further, adding a complexity of structure that allowed Romantic feelings to be expressed. When an encore was demanded on Friday, the Jerusalem String Quartet responded by playing one movement of a Béla Bartók quartet, demonstrating that the form of the quartet continues to evolve. Had there been time, a Shostakovich quartet would have shown this even more clearly. The Jerusalem ensemble has made a specialty of the very important Shostakovich quartets.
Haydn's Quartet in D, Op. 64, No.5 led off the program. The interpretation adopted by the Jerusalem String Quartet in the first movement startled me by the degree to which the tonal quality of the first violin differed from that of the other "accompanying" instruments. However, the piece is known as the "Lark," and a lark does soar above earth-bound creatures. Perhaps that was the intention. It certainly made one think.
The performance of Mozart's Quartet in G, K. 387 was a gem. We heard an assured ensemble, now twenty years together, melded securely. The second and third movements of the Mozart were especially appealing. The Menuetto was simultaneously formal and sensuous, presenting the tradition of the dance form but also the emotional excitement of the dancer. In two words – it was a sexy minuet. Then the Andante cantabile became very serious. Mozart to me is always operatic, and this movement, with its contrasting voicings and the delicate interplay of the four instruments, was an operatic quartet of great depth.
Following intermission came Beethoven's Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the three Razumovsky quartets. These were written in 1806 and are among his middle quartets. Beethoven is, arguably, either a "Classical Romantic" composer or a "Romantic Classical" composer. Whatever term you prefer, his quartets clearly are divided into the "early" quartets, much in the style of Haydn and Mozart, the "middle" quartets, exploratory in form and beyond the strict Classical, and the "late" quartets that broke into exciting new territory never before seen or heard. He wrote this quartet about four years after he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he considered suicide because of his growing deafness and then reaffirmed life. After that time, many of his works (and this is one) show an initial heroism that is then overtaken by tragedy, but that tragedy is followed by a resolution to carry on anyway.
The beautiful cello theme of the Allegro starts things off on a positive tack. That movement and the ensuing one (a little more playful) continue to be heroic. Then comes the difficulty in life in the beautiful Adagio molto e mesto. I noted with interest that Zlotnikov bent over his cello, looked heavenward, then rested with closed eyes, before beginning the movement. How appropriate that the same string instrument that enunciated the initial heroic theme should begin this movement with the enunciation of the difficulties inherent in a real life. I cannot remember a better performance of this third movement. The ensemble moved without pause ("attaca") from the third movement to the fourth, which is marked "Thème Russe: Allegro." It seemed most appropriate, given that three-quarters of the quartet was born in the former Soviet Union, that the resolution should have a Russian flavor.
The capacity audience demanded an encore – we got both a story and an encore. Kam told us how he discovered that the people of Slovakia consider Bartók to be a Slovakian composer. We were treated to Bartók’s Allegretto pizzicato (the fourth of Quartet No. 4’s five movements), played in what Kam said was the Slovakian style. It was charming.