Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet No. 12,
Jerusalem Qrt; Stefan Vladar (pn)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901899 (65:31)
In a review of two Beethoven string quartets in
29:5, Jerry Dubins made the astonishing statement, “I sense that we have entered a new phase . . . of string quartet playing . . . that even the very best among late
20th-century string quartet ensembles . . . are beginning to be eclipsed. . . .” A daring proposition, but Dubins is on to something: the quantity and the quality of young string quartets, staffed by young players, are growing by leaps and bounds, as are their exceptional recordings. Older ensembles, even such outstanding groups as the Juilliard, the Emerson, and the LaSalle, have often left the impression that they worked long and hard to achieve a performance. Many of the younger groups—who no doubt work just as hard—make it seem as though the music just flows out of them with hardly a thought; it can be a seductive impression. This apparent ease is not the point Dubins was making, but it is another facet of the same jewel.
The Jerusalem Quartet members (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Amichai Grosz, and Kyril Zlotnikov) came together in high school in 1993, and it has become widely accepted on both sides of the Atlantic as a major ensemble. Its reading of Dvo?ák’s “American” Quartet prompted the above paragraph. Even recordings by top-notch Czech ensembles—the Smetana, the Panocha—have seemed studied, and the Pra?ák gave us a stormy op. 96 that shed new light on an overplayed work. But this 2005 performance (a 2002 Jerusalem Quartet concert outing appears on the Live Classics label) is so natural, so right, that one feels this music should be played no other way: this is an outgoing yet personal reading of emotional music. Each instrument has its own character: a warm, silky first violin, a dryer second, a dusky viola, and a potent cello that combines it all. Individual lines stand out, yet the instruments blend smoothly. The recorded sound helps: it too is silky and intimate, as if we were hearing a quartet in someone’s home rather than in a public space. Such intimacy and ease do not imply casualness; nothing is over or underplayed, nothing glossed over. As with the Weilerstein Trio’s recent “Dumky” Trio, my feelings for a war-horse have been rekindled after too many performances attended, too many recordings reviewed.
If this recording of the Piano Quintet fails to generate quite the same enthusiasm, it is through no fault of these musicians. It’s just that an earlier performance is so etched in my mind that I cannot dismiss it even for a second: a December 31, 1982, live performance by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, heard on Russian Revelation RV 10092 and currently available on Yedang Entertainment 10021. Harmonia Mundi’s intimate recorded sound is not quite so appropriate here; the addition of a grand piano with its solo and ensemble climaxes makes this charming work a more public spectacle (the contrast between private moments and public ones is a major part of the quintet’s arsenal). For most of the performance, both the musicians and the recorded sound successfully capture this dichotomy, but there are times when they falter. For much of the long first movement, the young players keep pace with the legendary Russians, savoring every phrase, flying every color, riding every thrill, in a heady mix of artistry. But, as the coda begins (at the whole-note
chord on p. 31 of the Eulenburg score, about 12:39 on track 5), Vladar cannot match the floating serenity of Richter at the top of his form. That is a heavy cudgel to beat any pianist with, but one just cannot forget. On a scale of one to 10, this new performance rates a 10.0; Richter is simply off the chart. Vladar and his friends are so fine that, revisiting the Russian Revolution disc, I find the Borodin to be a less refined, less unified ensemble than the Jerusalem. Richter, however, maintains his magic; he knows instinctively just when and how much to expand a phrase, and his digital execution is jaw dropping, despite the occasional missed note.
This is the most appealing new disc of chamber music I have heard in years, although I was also entranced by the Jerusalem’s Haydn (
27: 6). If these youngsters can play Beethoven as well as they play Dvo?ák, I will become an ardent proponent of Dubins’s view.
FANFARE: James H. North
We're not exactly short on recordings of this music, but by any standard these are excellent performances. The Jerusalem Quartet plays the "American" with all of the necessary vitality and rhythmic snap. You can tell right from the viola's peppy attack on the opening theme that all will be well. Happily, the group also floats the slow movement's gorgeous melodies effortlessly and sets a perfect tempo for the finale's chugging locomotive. My only quibble, both here and in the quintet, concerns a tendency in louder sections to attack the instruments so hard that the players create a percussive "click", almost like Mahler's "struck with the bow" sound effects. It's unnecessary--though unlike, say, the Lindsays (ASV), whose enthusiasm degenerates into just plain ugliness as often as not, that's never an issue here.
The performance of the Piano Quintet is equally impressive, with Stefan Vladar a fine partner to the strings. His nimble fingers in the scherzo are a delight, but the high point of the performance undoubtedly is the huge second movement, Dvorák's largest and most profound Dumka. The ensemble plays for high drama, really digging into the sorrowful episodes and making the most of each section, but at the same time seeing to it that the music hangs together despite the wide-ranging contrasts in tempo, dynamics, and expression. Harmonia Mundi's sonics are typically fine, and even though you probably own a few dozen performances of each work, you can add this disc to your collection with no qualms whatsoever.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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