Most people will associate Suntory Hall with the grand Main Hall with its famed acoustics. However, tucked away at the side of the hall’s entrance is its small hall named Blue Rose, an intimate and flexible space suited to music for smaller forces. This is the venue of the hall’s annual “Chamber Music Garden”, a three-week celebration of chamber music ranging from duos to octets in all configurations, from Haydn to Messiaen and Stravinsky, as well as delicate music-making on historical instruments.

The Jerusalem Quartet
© Suntory Hall

One of Chamber Music Garden’s popular features is its Beethoven string quartet cycle, performed by a different group every year, and this year it was the turn of the celebrated Jerusalem Quartet. In March, the group posted on Facebook that they were the “first world fully vaccinated ensemble” – although that didn’t spare them from travel complications and quarantine before they could embark on this monumental Beethoven journey on the Blue Rose stage. 

I caught them mid-cycle, when they performed three quartets, Op.18 no.4, Op.74 (“Harp”), and Op.132. There are many ways of programming the cycle of 16 quartets, but the Jerusalem's choice was to distribute one work each from Beethoven’s early/middle/late periods in each concert, highlighting the transition of Beethoven’s style within each programme. This transition was vividly demonstrated in their performance which was full of energy, sonority and spontaneity.

One could say that the String Quartet no. 4 in C minor is Beethoven’s youthful Sturm und Drang quartet. There was plenty of dramatic urgency to enjoy in the opening movement, including the tense chordal showdown between the first violin and the others. The Minuet was angular and stormy, and in the Haydenesque gypsy-style Rondo finale they brought foot-tapping liveliness and humour. In this quartet, one could sense that the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov was holding the reins, keeping the rhythmic pulse flowing, and generally being the playmaker of the thematic development while the first violin (Alexander Pavlovsky) soared above with the melody. 

The Jerusalem Quartet
© Suntory Hall

The quartet demonstrated a warmer and more lyrical ensemble-making in the so-called “Harp” Quartet, with the inner voices (second violinist Sergei Bresler and violist Ori Kam) coming more to the fore and each displaying his soloistic side, notably in the variation finale. The pizzicato arpeggio motif in the first movement that gave the work its nickname was passed around sonorously and seamlessly between the players, and in the Adagio second movement, one of Beethoven’s sublime lyrical moments, the theme was treated to elegant melodic embellishments by each of the players.

One of the chief characteristics of the Jerusalem Quartet is the opulence of their collective sound. As an ensemble, they are very dynamic and extrovert, and they could easily fill the Blue Rose with their brilliant and sumptuous tone. Their music-making is very natural and spontaneous, and in that sense, they are quite different to some European groups who take a more analytical and precise approach to the Beethoven string quartets, especially his late works.

Perhaps that was most evident in their rendition of the A minor Op.132 quartet, which requires less dynamism and more introspection. Here too, their performance was full of warmth and flow, but I felt they made less of the thematic complexity of the first movement, and the second movement felt a little unsettled. In the famous middle movement, Beethoven’s song of thanksgiving after a near-fatal illness, they created a moving contrast between the austere four-part modal hymn, played almost non-vibrato, and the alternating joyful and exuberant D major section. Still, before we could wallow in the sentiment, they swept us off our feet with the turbulent Appassionato finale.

 

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