Review: Jerusalem Quartet Starts a Weeklong Marathon


A good string quartet, wisdom has it, is like a single instrument with 16 strings. That sort of unity of sound and purpose is a given in any performance by the extraordinary Jerusalem Quartet, which on Thursday completed the opening leg of a marathon in which it will play all six Bartok quartets and the first six quartets by Beethoven within a single week at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But during the Andante of Bartok’s Quartet No. 5 on Thursday, the ensemble seemed to morph not so much into a super-instrument as into something organic and animalistic that moved with louche and unpredictable grace.

The concert, at the Rose Studio, comprised Bartok’s first, third and fifth quartets, works that need feline flexibility of expression. The technical innovations in his writing for strings — the skittish bow taps, the string-snapping pizzicatos — have long since been absorbed into players’ technical lexicon. But it still takes an ensemble with a strong vision to make them speak.

The violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, the violist Ori Kam and the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov each bring formidable chops to the task. In the nervy chromaticism of Bartok’s late-Romantic first quartet, the ensemble’s sound was glossy and generous, with only Mr. Zlotnikov’s cello occasionally giving hints of a violent undertow.

In the Quartet No. 3, the players produced a cooler, smokier sound suited to a work that weds irony and pathos with big slurpy portamenti (slides from one note to another) answered by mocking plucked notes. Like a great actor, the ensemble managed to imbue each moment with tragedy and comedy at once.

But in the finale of the Quartet No. 5, between the million-notes-a-minute breathlessness of the Allegro and the white blur of the final Presto, Bartok shines the spotlight on the second violin with an innocent tune that makes for a moment of pure silliness. Taking the expressive marking “con indifferenza” (“with indifference”) to heart, Mr. Bresler played it with out-of-tune apathy of an undermotivated beginner, in what was perhaps the night’s most astonishing transformation.

The Jerusalem Quartet performs Beethoven quartets at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday and Tuesday and the rest of the Bartok quartets at the Rose Studio on Thursday;

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