Jerusalem Quartet proves revelatory in dark program for Candlelight

Mon Apr 24, 2023 at 12:25 pm

The Jerusalem Quartet performed Sunday in Columbia for the Candlelight Concert Society. Photo: Mira Huang

The last time that the Jerusalem Quartet visited the area was before the pandemic. The distinguished Israeli ensemble almost missed their concert here Sunday afternoon, presented by Candlelight Concert Society, when their morning flight from North Carolina was canceled. After driving all day, they made it to the Horowitz Center in Columbia with just twenty minutes to spare.

This program of music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók played to the group’s strengths. The quartet’s 2016 concert gave a taste of their authoritative Prokofiev, and this rendition of the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 made one wish again for these musicians to take on a Prokofiev recording. Composed in 1941, when the Soviet authorities had evacuated the composer to the city of Nalchik, it references the Kabardinian folk music of that area.

From the opening of the first movement, set in quintal harmony, the piece felt aptly rough-hewn, with heavy accents and a sense of rustic folk-music edge. In the middle section of the movement, the quartet’s ability to tune dissonant intervals so cleanly struck the ear, the way they found beauty in the clashes of the score. Ardent solos came in the slow movement as well, especially in the middle section, where the first violin was accompanied by the other three instruments in pizzicato, in imitation of the folk music instrument called the kamancheh.

The muscular style of the third movement featured rock-solid rhythmic coordination among the four musicians. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov played the mid-movement cello cadenza with fervent zeal, followed by first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s high-flying solo line on long, limpid notes.

Although the Jerusalem Quartet is still in the process of recording the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, their interpretations of the composer’s music remain at the top of a crowded field of competitors. They have yet to record String Quartet No. 10, but this performance of the work, composed in 1964 and dedicated to fellow composer Mieczysław Weinberg, indicated that the group has lost none of its potency and edge in Shostakovich.

Pavlovsky’s gloomy introduction on the first violin set the tone for a first movement rife with tension. A surprise ending on a beatific major chord did little to prepare the listener for the precisely drilled, obsessive drive of the second movement, marked Allegro furioso. Amid string sounds like distressed groans and blaring sirens, the four musicians marched in lockstep in this music that often felt pitiless and hateful.

Zlotnikov’s opening solo line, a rising figure of legato polish, became the repeated bass pattern of the third movement, a reflective passacaglia. As the movement turned hushed, the bass line sank quietly down an octave, leading a poignant turn in the music. Violist Ori Kam took the lead in the Allegretto first section of the Finale, in which both the passacaglia theme and elements of the first movement made appearances.

The Jerusalem Quartet completed its recording of the six string quartets of Bartók in 2020. Kam’s viola lamented beautifully in the introduction to the first movement of String Quartet No. 6. All the movements in this work begin with slow introductions, marked Mesto, meaning sad or mournful. Although it is a work steeped in despair in some ways, other lighter ideas came across with equal allure.

The quartet handled the many stops and starts of the first movement with collective unity, crafting beauty out of music that can be harsh. The dotted rhythms of the second movement’s march-like music felt like a jaunty counterpart to the tragic opening section. A folkish middle section combined Zlotnikov’s agility very high on the A string with obstinate repetition of melodic cells.

The third movement’s Burletta roared raucously with sounds like shouts of laughter, braying glissandi sometimes undercutting the sense of playful humor. Second violinist Sergei Bresler, who carried equal weight with Pavlovsky on first violin, took up the Mesto material in the last movement. This music of angst-ridden disquiet dominated the Finale, a curious way to end a recital, albeit with the glimmer of major harmony in the cello’s closing pizzicato flourish.

Compact introductions by Jonathan Palevsky, program director at Baltimore’s WBJC classical music station, situated the selections around the theme of music under tyranny. Slides with many interesting images filled out the picture of the struggles these three composers lived under various regimes, managing to find ways to escape or even flourish.

Empire Wild, a crossover trio of two cellists and a keyboard player, performs a program of pop, folk, and jazz to close the Candlelight season 8 p.m. May 20.

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