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The Jerusalem String Quartet played Mozart, Shostakovich, Brahms, and Debussy in Reynolds Industries Theater, dazzling a substantial crowd with richly rewarding performances distinguished by intense, energetic, animated, and incisive work of exceptional appeal. These artists - Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violins, Ori Kam, viola, and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello - are what might be called "whole body" players, musicians who move around a good bit as they perform, literally leaning into phrases and, sometimes, carrying them around. It's physical playing of the kind that takes some getting-used-to, and some in attendance thought it excessive as the concert began with Mozart's Quartet No. 15 in D, K.421. It didn't take long for these artists to command the attention they deserve with music at once serious, profound, and infused with light. Mozart or Haydn quartets often serve as program openers for conventional chamber music concerts, but there was nothing routine here - yes, there was much more to come, and as it happened the rest of the evening was at comparably high levels, but this was a breathtaking start.
Next was Shostakovich's Quartet No. 10, again incisively played. As in the Mozart, one of the most remarkable things about the performance was the broad sound image the ensemble projected. This was clean, clear, ideally-balanced quartet work, with all voices immaculately revealed. Surely one of the reasons was the artists' incisive attacks and meticulous attention to phrase endings, but the excellent instruments - that viola sound was to die for - and the keen interaction among the players also helped immensely. The slow movement of the Shostakovich is achingly beautiful - it's one of the master's most profound and revealing; and in the virtuoso finale the Jerusalem Quartet managed to turn up the performance heat even more than before.
Brahms' quartets, like Robert Schumann's, are challenges to bring to effective life, thanks to their inherent darkness and the density of much of the writing. These musicians broke the code with astute tempi and more of their rock-solid approach to ensemble work, resulting in a reading of Brahms' A Minor Second Quartet (Op. 51/2) that stood apart from the norm. The viola was heard to particular advantage in this work's slow movement, which may be savored in a YouTube clip, but the entire work emerged as a concise and unified whole that was a tribute not only to the score but also to the visiting musicians.
Although the Brahms was so good one wondered what they could do as an encore to top it, the crowd was reluctant to let them go and after being recalled twice the players obliged with the slow movement of Debussy's Quartet. A colleague commented that it "was possibly the most sublime playing [he had] ever heard." Yes, 'twas that good.
This concert was part of the current Chamber Arts Society series, produced by Duke Performances. Next up is the Takács Quartet with Garrick Ohlsson on March 17. It's sold out, but tickets are available for the pianist's all-Liszt solo recital the previous day; for details, see our calendar listing.
PS There were protesters (of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land) outside as people were coming inside for this concert; flyers cited Israeli government support of the quartet. Chamber Arts spokesperson George Gopen corrected that: the Jerusalem Quartet is not funded by the ministry cited by the protesters who, by being out, instead of in, missed a magnificent concert.