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Jerusalem Quartet performs Smetana and Janáček on their latest recording

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussedcourtesy of harmonia mundi

Last week harmonia mundi released their latest recording of the Jerusalem Quartet (violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlontikov). The album couples Bedřich Smetana’s first string quartet. Written in the key of E minor, Smetana gave this piece the autobiographical title “From My Life.” This is followed by the only two quartets of Leoš Janáček, both of which also have subtitles, “Inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata” and “Intimate Letters,” respectively.

All three of these quartets are intensely personal. In each case the musical rhetoric is tightly coupled to a strong sense of dramatism, which, in the case of Janáček’s first quartet, involves an explicit narrative element. Emotions in these quartets run high and traverse a broad spectrum.

Thus, the high-pitched tone that interrupts the final movement of Smetana’s quartet provides an almost clinical account of the onset of the composer’s deafness. Yet this is preceded by the high spirits of dance music, which, in turn, continues the jocular polka in the second movement whose dancers never quite get the knack of keeping time. Tolstoy’s novella, on the other hand, is a moralistic tale of infidelity, which Janáček ends up relating with more sympathy for the seduced woman than Tolstoy had intended, while the “intimate letters” of the second quartet reflect the letters he actually wrote late in life to his own illicit love. (The second quartet was composed in the year of his death and is his last piece of chamber music.)

On this recording the Jerusalem Quartet shows a thorough appreciation of the technical demands imposed by both composers, and there is no questioning their skills in rising to those demands. What is lacking, however, is any visceral appreciation of the dramatistic side. Yes, the performance honors the abrupt shifts in dynamics and tempo; but it never seems to home in on what those compositional methods are actually connoting. Similarly, it is unclear whether or not there is an appreciation of the extent to which both Janáček quartets reflect the composer’s ear for colloquial Czech prose.

The result is a recording of impressive technical achievement that reminds us that music is seldom all about the technique.

The Jerusalem Quartet will be touring North America in March; their United States engagements are as follows:

  • March 16, Berkeley, California, Hertz Hall
  • March 17, Napa, California, First United Methodist Church (with clarinetist Sharom Kam)
  • March 23, Palm Beach, Florida, Society of the Four Arts
  • March 24, Houston, Texas, Rothko Chapel
  • March 26, Savannah, Georgia, Trinity United Methodist Church (local debut)
  • March 27, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kimmel Center, Perlman Theater
  • March 29, Boston, Massachusetts, Jordan Hall (local debut)
  • March 30, South Bend, Indiana, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center