It’s not every concert that the performers cough and sniffle in proportion to the audience. The wintry Midwest seems to have taken its toll on the Jerusalem Quartet, with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov hiding behind his instrument between several movements to let out a few coughs. Despite the biting Chicago cold and under the weather players, the quartet produced a performance of high quality that conveyed some much needed warmth.

Jerusalem Quartet © Felix Broede
Jerusalem Quartet
© Felix Broede

Mozart’s String Quartet in G major, K387 opened the program. This is the first of the composer’s “Haydn” quartets, inspired by Joseph Haydn’s Op.33 quartets from 1781. Mozart deliberated over his six “Haydn” quartets, declaring them “the fruit of a long and laborious endeavour” in their dedication. Despite this, neither the music nor the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance seemed labored. Each movement flows with ease, and the performers masked the challenges Mozart’s music presents, instead sharing a pleasing, full tone and exceptional ensemble. Throughout this work, it feels as if the listener is privy to a four-way conversation, and the way in which the quartet passed phrases between each other heightened this feeling. In the lyrical first movement, violist Ori Kam seemed to revel particularly when it was his turn for a short monologue. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky spun a gorgeous melody in the elegant third movement. Appropriately for an Andante cantabile, Pavlosky evoked someone singing an opera aria in his vocal treatment of this movement. Perhaps the most innovative movement is the last, where Mozart uses fugal material as his theme, exercising his powers of counterpoint. In the lively second theme, violinists Pavlosky and Sergei Bresler could have exchanged their lines more smoothly, but this a minor fault in an otherwise strong performance. The surprise ending caused some amusement in the audience.

In stark contrast to jovial Mozart, Bartók's otherworldly Fourth Quartet followed. Composed in 1928, this work still sounds very fresh to contemporary ears, thanks in large part to the innovative sound worlds captured by the composer. It is very demanding, both on the players and their instruments, to portray these sounds. String players will rarely shred bow hairs playing Mozart, but in Bartók this is standard fare. The Jerusalem Quartet’s strident first movement and a few loose horsehairs let the audience know it was time for something completely different. The burbling, bizarre second movement was handled well, with a wide palette of pizzicato colors showed off by each member of the quartet. A magical opening got the third movement off to a captivating start, with the three upper strings creating a static, alien texture, upon which Zlotnikov rhapsodized with passion. The strumming fourth movement again showed off some impressive pizzicato, before the brutal, driving final movement rounded out the first half of the program. An amusing moment occurred when Bresler and Kam synchronized snapping off their bow hairs after a particularly rambunctious section of the last movement. It was a totally committed rendition of an exhilarating work.

After exploring Classical and 20th century pieces, the Jerusalem Quartet’s program finished in the Romantic era with Schumann’s String Quartet no. 3 in A major. Composed in 1842, it was one of Schumann’s works from his “Year of Chamber Music”. It is lucky for string players that the pianist-composer had a yearly habit of genre-hopping, as he wrote some truly beautiful works for quartet. The first movement is characterized by a falling fifth motif that is reminiscent of a human sigh. Pavlovsky transferred some of the vocal qualities exhibited in the Mozart to the falling fifth motif to great effect. The players had a wonderful way throughout this program of creating a suspended atmosphere at the ends of movements, and this was especially evident in both the second and third movements of the Schumann. The silence following the agitated second movement was poignant. In the next movement, the purity of tone and intonation of Bresler‘s dotted-rhythm accompanimental material was truly commendable, allowing the first violin to wax lyrical up above. Again, the movement ended in a timeless hush. When the finale commenced it was a boisterous affair, filled with perky rhythms and shifting, danceable tempos.

A prolonged ovation greeted the end of the program, and the Jerusalem Quartet offered the third movement of Debussy’s String Quartet as an encore, to “warm your hearts” against the cold, as Ori Kam put it. It was certainly a tender performance, and a beautiful way to end the evening.