Jerusalem Quartet brings fresh illumination to Debussy, Ravel

By Lawrence Budmen

The Jerusalem Quartet performed Wednesday night in Coral Gables, presented by Friends of Chamber Music. Photo: Felix Broede

The Jerusalem Quartet performed Wednesday night in Coral Gables, presented by Friends of Chamber Music. Photo: Felix Broede

Some string quartets are composed of players with superb techniques whose individual brilliance shines through every score they play. Others command a unique blend of instrumental timbres that produce a distinctive corporate sound.

The Jerusalem Quartet manages to do both. On Wednesday night this exceptional group presented a memorable concert for the Friends of Chamber Music at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest.

Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, no. 1 is one of that master’s most delightful works. The players exhibited a peerless sense of classical style in the opening Allegro con spirito, which was high-spirited indeed. Both the exuberant and aristocratic elements of the score were conveyed with consummate artistry. Violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s virtuosic command and leadership were strongly assertive from the first bars. Each of the Jerusalem players is an artist of soloist caliber. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov’s rich warmth of tone brought out the eloquence of the second movement’s principal theme. Pavlovsky dispatched the florid violin variants with energetic brightness.

While most third movements of Haydn quartets are minuets, here the dance only takes off in the trio section which Pavlovsky phrased with in a feathery manner. The main part of the movement is a Presto–actually a scherzo before Beethoven invented that designation. Here the sheer brilliance of the group’s attack and sonority held forth at top force. The concluding Allegro ma non troppo finds Haydn at his wittiest and the quartet aptly conveyed the humor in the musical blind alleys, sudden pauses and false codas. Just the right weight was given to the mock sturm und drung episodes without overt heaviness.

Hearing the quartets of Debussy and Ravel in one concert was a real treat. In his introductory remarks, violist Ori Kam noted that these seeming quintessentially French scores owe much to Spanish, Russian and Asian influences as well as the formal rigor of Haydn and Beethoven. The players’ revelatory approach to both works gave equal emphasis to the Gallic and exotic elements.

While maintaining the ensemble’s lustrous sound and unity of precision, the first movement of Debussy’s Quartet in G minor was distinguished by the lean clarity of thematic figures and transparency of individual parts. This bracing reading offered a compelling revisionist view of Debussy’s greatest chamber work. Guitar-like strumming and plucking came to the fore in the second movement, assaying the music from a refreshingly modernist perspective.

Dark and austere tones from Kam’s viola and Zlotnikov’s cello set the solemn context of the third movement. with Pavlovsky’s violin glistening in chant-like solo moments. The hazy harmonies of the finale’s introduction prefaced vigorous articulation that rose to a sonic tempest. Capped by a robust coda, the Jerusalem foursome’s reading made one hear Debussy’s score in a new light.

Ravel’s Quartet in F Major was even more exciting. The opening languid strains ignited an intense thrust that ran through all four movements. Rarely has the second subject been played with such allure, Kam’s vibrant viola like a siren’s song. The quartet’s soft playing was exquisite and they fully captured the sensuous aura of Ravel’s exotic coloration.

Strongly accented flurries of plucked notes at the onset of the second movement preceded the unusual vigor with which the players conveyed the main melody. Finely tuned dynamics ranged from a mere whisper to forceful agitated chords almost orchestral in impact. Although the final Vif et agité was taken at a rapid pace, every note and tone was clean and audible. These superb musicians combine technical near-perfection with strong musicality and distinctive interpretive instincts.

Friends of Chamber Music presents the New York Philharmonic Quartet playing Haydn’s Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9 and Brahms’ Quartet in A minor 8 p.m. May 14 at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest. miamichambermusic.org 305-372-2975

The 2019-2020 season of Friends of Chamber Music opens October 24 with a duo recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt. Other artists and groups appearing during the season include the ZEN Teio, Borodin String Quartet, pianist Vadym Kholodenko, the duo of pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and violinist Hyeyoon Park, pianist Joseph Kalichstein with the New York Philharmonic Quartet, the Ehnes Quartet, pianist Kevin Kenner with the Apollon Quartet, soprano Ying Fang and pianist Ken Noda and the combined Escher and Dover Quartets in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet.

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