sat 21/09/2019

Jerusalem Quartet, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Jerusalem Quartet, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall

Jerusalem Quartet, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall

An awkward collaboration blots an otherwise intriguing start to this Shostakovich cycle

Eliabeth Leonskaja: Richter's legendary duet partner struggled to find common music ground with the Jerusalem Quartet

A previous visit to the Wigmore Hall saw the Jerusalem Quartet make headlines for all the wrong reasons, after political protestors disrupted the live-broadcast concert. Last night however all was mercifully calm and music-focused for the start of the first three-concert sequence in the quartet’s Shostakovich cycle, though audience members did have to brave the rather incongruous bouncers, lined up in their casual-with-just-a-hint-of-don’t-even-think-about-it chic outside the hall doors.

Working chronologically through Shostakovich’s chamber repertoire, the quartet’s triptych of concerts gain heft as they progress, expanding as the composer’s own ambitions and musical scope increases through his life. Last night’s concert was a revealing portrait of a young composer who has already seen too much horror – darkly witty, prescient, and manic in his exploration of a new musical form.

The String Quartet No. 1 in C is a compressed drama, staging a debate between a wilful optimist of a first violin and his more doubtful colleagues. The opening Moderato sees a ballad-like song lose its harmonic way, straying and stumbling from the clear intent of the start. The violin persists in his jolly gambits, trying to bring the other instruments along with him, but must briefly admit defeat, taking the viola’s plangent lead in the second movement, before the whole quartet come together for the nervy denial of the Allegro molto and ferocious release of the finale.

With the tempestuous final movement the quartet nailed their colours to the mast

It was a narrative played out vividly by the Jerusalem quartet. First violin Alexander Pavlovsky’s sleek, patrician tone was made for this kind of sardonic sincerity, crooning out his case persuasively. Violist Ori Kam never overworked his second movement melody, his restraint setting Pavlovksy in relief, drawing us in by refusing to yield to the beckoning beauty of Shostakovich’s legato phrases. With the tempestuous final movement the quartet nailed their colours to the mast, cramming all that had hitherto been restrained into this miniature epic.

The Elegy and Polka for String Quartet is a rather extraordinary thing – a two-movement joke, repurposed from earlier works, complete with musical setup and a punchline. If the latter is to work then the former has to be exquisite, pristine in its blend and tuning, giving nothing away of what’s to come. Here it was perfectly poised. This is a quartet now in their second stage of development, a group that have matured into their musical relationships and now dare to do less, understanding the impact of calibrating emotions over a broader scale.

The pay-off in this case was immediate. The joke here is that the musical slapstick – “out of tune” chords, lurching rhythms – is played with a straight face, and the Jerusalem Quartet were the picture of calm, their characteristic seriousness and intent playing perfectly into Shostakovich’s game.

The real meat of this first concert came in the second half, with the G minor quintet – a five-movement musical shadow-play of emotion. The group were joined by pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, which sadly proved an awkward fit. The Jerusalem are all about precision and controlled release; Leonskaja is all about release, unbounded. As soloist she is spontaneous, occasionally approximate, but always exciting. Here unfortunately, against the sober elegance of the quartet her expressive freedom became splashiness, her emphasis a tendency to bang on the rather dulled keys of the Wigmore grand.

Visibly unsettled by their colleague, the quartet nevertheless produced some of the evening’s most expressive colours – the organ-thick harmonies of the Prelude, giving way to the filmiest of fugues, bows caressing the finger-board. The Intermezzo has to have a sense both of tremendous weight and lightness, anchored, tethered, by its ground bass but also free to roam above. Here Pavlovsky and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov led us unerringly, and the entry of the piano felt almost like an intrusion. We had two goes at the Puckish Scherzo, which returned as encore. This second performance fixed a lot of the earlier issues of ensemble between piano and strings, and sharpened up some of the ornamental detail in the piano part, but still lacked the lightness that would have liberated it fully.

It was a concert to cement any expectations audiences have built up of this excellent quartet over the years, but an unfortunate collaborative misfire. For anyone who returns this week or next, there is the lure of Pavlovsky’s take on the Andantino from Quartet No. 4, the heft of the Passacaglia from No. 6, the emotional depths of the fourth movement Adagio of No. 3. The Jerusalem have developed a distinctive point of view, and theirs will be a musical opinion worth hearing.

The Jerusalem are all about precision and controlled release; Leonskaja is all about release, unbounded

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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