Jerusalem Quartet with Alexander Melnikov
The nondescriptly charcoal-suited members of the Jerusalem Quartet did not look like time travellers, unless it was as a visiting ensemble from East Germany, circa 1982. But appearances counted for nothing once the music started, and we were transported back to 1790 and Mozart’s String Quartet K589, the second of his three Prussian quartets.
Or rather, the music of 1790 was transported to the present: they were time inducers rather than travellers. It’s a tricky thing, recreating music that stems from a different time and place. Too much reverence and you can choke it and make it a stiff parody of itself, too little and you might as well be playing something else.
The Jerusalem Quartet struck this balance admirably, the music sounding vibrantly alive without surrendering its grip on its strict classical form. The cello has a leading part in the Prussian quartets since King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who commissioned them, was a keen amateur cellist expecting to be given more than the usual supporting role for the instrument. A lesser composer than Mozart might have ended up with a misshapen cello concerto but the result is fascinating, with all four instruments given plenty of solo space while the classical architecture remains intact.
Then we were transported a hundred years forward to Debussy’s String Quartet Op 10, composed in 1893, before he’d created most of the music he’s now remembered for. But the journey from the Classical era to the Romantic is clear, all the contained emotional focus of Mozart now become overt and at times almost uncontained.
Although this was to be Debussy’s only string quartet, he showed a full command of its possibilities with long pizzicato passages and strummed parts, and again the cellist, Kyril Ziotnikov, saw a great deal of the action. Fortunately, he was equal to the challenge, with a rich, grainy tone and a commanding sense of dynamics.
After the interval, pianist Alexander Melnikov joined the quartet on stage for a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op 44, and this is where the time travelling/inducing started to get a bit wobbly. Schumann composed the quintet in 1842, almost smack in the middle between the Mozart and the Debussy pieces, and lurch in styles was evident, and more confusing than enlightening. Or maybe it was the addition of Melnikov, who was not quite on the same rhythmic wavelength as the quartet.