Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jerusalem Quartet opens Ensemble Music Society series in spectacular fashion

The goal of every chamber-music group is to project a personality all its own while not pouring it like a sauce over a wide range of repertoire.
Jerusalem Quartet played itself as well as three distinctive pieces.

It can be a tricky proposition, but the Jerusalem Quartet showed how it's done Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center. The Israeli group opened the 71st season of Ensemble Music Society with a program of Ravel, Beethoven, and Brahms — giving a distinctive profile to each of the three string quartets enjoyed by a near-capacity audience in Basile Theater.

I'm resisting picking up online evidence of the JQ's affinity for the likes of Shostakovich and Bartok. But I'm betting that violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov have a unified vision of those composers as well.

Founded in the 1990s with one change of personnel since (Kam joined in 2011), the Jerusalem Quartet has been well-received for its Brahms performances. Unsurprisingly, his Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2 capped a top-flight program.

 The work's occasionally dense textures never took on excessive weight. In the second movement, the myriad contrapuntal phrases did not sound thick, but maintained clarity. In the "Quasi minuetto" movement that followed, the players managed to convey a dreamy atmosphere, yet with all the material well-defined.  This characteristic came in handy in making the movement's scurrying fast section seem an integral part of the whole.

Coordination was pinpoint. It had been evident how characteristic that was in the deftness with which tempos quickened toward the end of the first movement. In the fourth, the Jerusalem Quartet extracted the utmost drama from the music's pauses and hesitations.

To try to describe what this ensemble is about: Without sacrificing clear-cut attacks, it manages a kind of soft-focus tone and a blend as warm as period instruments strung with gut and to lower tension. The tone quality is rich without being too assertive. Kam has probably the sweetest sound of any violist I've heard: Besides its occasional prominence in the printed program, it was a treat to savor it one more time in the encore, the Andantino from Debussy's Quartet in G minor.

Also admirable was the restraint shown in Beethoven's Quartet in A major, op. 18, no. 5.  The Jerusalem's performance properly anchored the work in the classical era, with formal balance holding expressiveness in check.  At first I thought the start of the finale ought to have had its angular contours stressed more, but it became evident that feature is more worth emphasis later in the movement, which is exactly where the Jerusalem put it.

Leading up to intermission, Ravel's Quartet in F major was also outstanding. The cool sentimentality that flecks many Ravel scores was given its due. The contrasting material in the second movement — a litmus test for conveying understanding of the composer's idiom — was expertly judged. All the color contrasts and combinations of Ravel's orchestral palette are here in microcosm, and the Jerusalem was sensitive to them.

The drawn-out ending of the slow movement was put across with an almost timeless feeling that set up wonderfully the torrential opening of the finale. That movement's mercurial quality came to the fore throughout, but from an Olympian perspective that never failed to delight.