★★★★☆ Israeli quartet offers up staple fare, but perfectly served.

It’s hard to believe the Jerusalem Quartet is celebrating 21 years of music-making in 2016. The youthful spirits and visages of the four players defies that statistic, until you realise that first violin Alexander Pavlovsky was 16 when he started with the group, and at the time he was its oldest member! A quick bit of maths puts him at 37, the rest somewhere below that. But what maturity they convey, and that long collaborative experience was very much to the fore in this, their seventh tour for Musica Viva.

I’d have to admit the programme was a bit of a meat and potatoes affair – an early Beethoven quartet, a late Dvořák and a work by Ross Edwards that would count as ‘spicy’ anywhere other than here in Australia. With little angst on display, none of the works exactly plumb the depths. However, with playing this distinguished, a lightish repast should fit the bill for anyone wanting relatively simple food, lovingly prepared. If you haven’t heard them, the Jersusalems main strengths lie in their communicative powers, allied with lashings of first-rate technique. In their hands, fast movements are disciplined, slow movements perfectly layered, immaculately balanced and with that crucial sense of innigkeit (or poignant intimacy of feeling) that is the essence of good chamber music.

The Beethoven quartet (the last of the composer’s six earliest essays in the form), was the only place a foot was put wrong, the opening movement heading off with a haste that felt a little unseemly. It was certainly spirited, but the first violin had the odd tuning hiccup and the pace foiled the cellist’s articulation of the first subject semiquavers. After that things settled down, the poised Adagio was elegance personified and the Scherzo mercurial (the Jerusalem Quartet more smoothly motoric than some who prefer a more lumpenly syncopated approach here). The finale with its famous “La Malinconia” opening was sublimely wistful, the Jerusalems opening up a blanched, haunted landscape, bleakly pointing Beethoven’s way ahead in the years and quartets to come. Even the semi-sunny allegretto waltz failed to lift the mood, until the final helter-skelter rush for the finish.

In a brief talk before the performance, composer Ross Edwards described his music as combining sounds associated with nature and mankind’s spiritual place within it. “Radical eclecticism”, he called it, remarking that it is “my job to make it all add up to something” and concluding by admitting that “it’s not easy”. His Third String Quartet hails from 2012 and appears a relatively effortless musical fusion – a formative experience walking a fire trail in coastal New South Wales mixing with the sounds of cicadas, a dance representing the Earth Mother and another celebrating the mystical union of humanity with the land itself.

Commencing with a dreaming theme on cello – and yes, as the quartet remarked to the composer, it did sound a little bit Jewish – it moved swiftly into a stamping dance replete with the sounds of frogs and the hum of insects. The Jerusalems seemed perfectly at home in what is warm, appealing music, imbuing it with some of the folky tang of, say, Janáček. If that Czech composer presided over the Fire Trail movement, the eerie nocturnal third section echoed Bartók, before the lilting gavotte of the Lotus Dance tugged the music back towards Asia and the summery sounds of the final Ecstatic Dance. The Israeli foursome held it all together very nicely, some especially lovely high harmonics on first violin.

Dvořák’s String Quartet No 13 is one of his post-American works, prompting some to hear hints of the native music of that country (though never as explicitly as in the preceding American String Quartet). A more tempting definition would call it his trainspotting quartet, the composer’s favourite pastime being reflected in the rhythms of several of the mostly laidback movements. The opening Allegro moderato chugged along nicely in the wake of its distinctly Bohemian opening theme, the Jerusalems capturing a suggestion of a mind in flux as it watches the passing countryside rolling by a train window. This was beautiful ensemble playing with oodles of energy. The nostalgic Adagio alternated between more clickety-clack in the lower instruments and some radiant melodies on violins while the Molto vivace third movement combined a pesante tread with an airy trio. The players’ intense listening and communicative skills came into play in a Finale packed with incident and throbbing with intensive meaning.

So, a very classy meat and potatoes meal indeed, and followed by an tantalising exotic dessert in the form of the tangy Allegretto pizzicato movement from Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet. Fans of fine chamber music-making needn’t hesitate.


The Jerusalem Quartet are on tour with Musica Viva until September 27.

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