Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jerusalem String Quartet returns to EMS series to offer post-election balm

Celebrating 20 years in existence and nurturing a growing international reputation, the Jerusalem String Quartet returned to Ensemble Music Society's concert series Wednesday night.
The Jerusalem String Quartet played Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Haydn at Indiana History Center.

Its first appearance under EMS auspices 25 months ago drew from me nothing but unstinting kudos. The second visit struck me as less superlative, and that response has nothing to do with an accident in the last movement of Beethoven's Quartet in F, op. 59, No. 1 ("Razumovsky"). As the ensemble launched the finale, second violinist Sergei Bresler's bow broke; he dashed backstage, returning a few minutes later with a replacement and completing the concert with his colleagues.

"Usually, we have strings break," quipped violist Ori Kam while Bresler was offstage. "Bows — not every day." It was a deft understatement about a rare mishap from which the quartet recovered flawlessly in polishing off the first Razumovsky (named, along with its two op. 59 companions, for a patron of the composer's).

The Jerusalem's internal rapport was most evident in the lovely Adagio molto e mesto second movement. The music had a free-flowing feel that suited the fine melody, particularly when cellist Kyril Zlotnikov handled it. The suggestion of ad-lib spontaneity was refreshing. Earlier, there had been moments flecked with slightly off-pitch notes, and I couldn't always be sure who was responsible.

But delights abounded in the performance. Counterpoint in the first movement's development was nicely coordinated. The ending of the second movement (Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando) — with its softly chattering sixteenth notes, giving way to a measure of pizzicato, then three measures of rhythmic bean bag downward before ending in a loud, assertive rush — can only be described as cute. Well, there are other words that could be used, but right here, I like "cute."

In the first half, the main disappointment was in choice of repertoire. I would never say a major composer must be represented by only his best work, but I nonetheless find Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, op. 50, annoying.  A work created in association with the Russian composer's American sojourn, it reflects his ambivalence about which direction to follow musically and (perhaps) personally as well. Sometimes he seems to be writing as a wannabe Old Master, fully formed and of lofty perspective. Sometimes there is the saving grace of his temperamental flippancy. Always there is another advantage: intimacy with the sound and natural capabilities of the forces he is writing for.

I balk mainly at the finale, a slow movement placed last because the composer thought the most important things he had to say were there. I can't blame the JSQ, whose advocacy of the work seemed well-considered and sturdily carried off. But that last movement nearly put me to sleep Wednesday. Listening to it at home as preparation, I avoided nodding off, but was puzzled by the logy, stolid writing. The music is heavy and almost pretentious. Much better are the first two movements, though the middle one has off-putting eccentricities as well.

No such questions surround Haydn's Quartet in D major, op. 64, no. 5 (the "Lark"). As heard Wednesday evening at the Indiana History Center, the first movement was lightly jaunty, not overly sweet, which seems just the way to play it. A subtle weight was given to phrases in the slow movement that allowed it to seem more serious while still within the work's spirit. The minuet was dexterously shaped, and in the swift-running finale, the agility and brilliant tone of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky were zestfully displayed.