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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Concert Review: The Slow Journey Into Silence

The Jerusalem String Quartet plays Beethoven.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Jerusalem String Quartet: Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Kyril Zlotnitov and
Ori Kam. Photo © 2015 harmonia mundi usa.
This week, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center embarked on a six-concert survey of the complete string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. It fell to the Jerusalem String Quartet to open the cycle with the six works of Op. 18 over two nights. Tuesday night's concert at Alice Tully Hall featured the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Quartets, key works in examining Beethoven's transition from able craftsman to an inspired, heroic figure.

The six Opus 18 quartets fall in the years before Beethoven wrote the "Heilingstadt Testament." In that 1802 letter to his brothers, the composer revealed the onset of his deafness and the fact that he had contemplated suicide. The three pieces performed on this program are for the most part standard four-movement works, although they show the composer beginning to stretch the possibilities of the quartet form to suit his own needs.

At Tuesday's concert , the Jerusalem players (violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov) showed the benefits of twenty years together with a crisp, incisive approach to the opening of the Quartet No. 4 in C minor. Led by Mr. Pavlovsky's first violin, this piece rose out of its dark tonality, emerging eventually as a song of victory led by the two violins. There is no conventional slow movement, but a brisk Andante scherzoso: a major-key discourse that brightened the mood considerably.

The Minuet followed, back in the worried minor key with the cello and viola offering commentary on the melodic line. It broke for a lilting Trio before the agitated main theme returned. The fast finale was all speed, a blazing Rondo that was precisely executed despite the players' choice of a break-neck pace.

The Fifth Quartet is very different, a cheerful discourse that owes much to a similar A Major work by Mozart. This quartet is written in an expansive, even bucolic mood, building a small thundercloud of drama only to quickly disperse the bad weather with a laughing return to a related major key. The slow Andante was meditative and serene, with the warm tone of Mr. Zlotnikov's cello holding forth.

The dance movement capered in what sounded like the composer's farewell to the century before: the courtly environment in which the great composers had functioned in the 1700s. Beethoven would soon leave such manners behind, striking out for brave new worlds of sound as the first great full-time freelance composer. The fast finale hinted again at those frontiers, with the rapid repetitions of the Allegro forming a sort of instrumental chorale.

Quartet No. 6 is the joker in the pack. Dialogue between Mr. Pavlovsky and Mr. Zlotnikov began the work, launching an exploratory sonata movement that weighed the home key of B flat major against its tonic and dominant in a mastery of form. The Adagio sounded mournful despite its key of E flat major, a prelude of the storm to come. The powerful cross-rhythms of the Scherzo hunted at the muscular symphonic dance movements that Beethoven would unleash in his "Heroic" period.

The first three movements are conventional if written on a slightly grander scale than before. It is the final movement that is the great innovation here. Beethoven ignores traditional form for a two-part structure: a sobbing slow section labeled La Malanocolia by its creator, which yields finally to a fast Rondo structure. Just before the coda, the weeping Malancolia theme comes back, perhaps the sound of the composer facing down the years of silence that awaited in the second half of his life. 

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