On Thursday 15 March, the Jerusalem String Quartet strode onto the stage of Richardson Auditorium all wearing the same smart suits. The four young players played a pleasant program of early string quartets by Beethoven, Debussy, and Brahms. The ensemble includes Alexander Pavlovsky (Violin I), Sergei Bresler (Violin II), Ori Kam (Viola), and Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) – musicians who met at conservatory, and since have toured the world and signed a record deal with the highly exclusive label Harmonia Mundi.

Jerusalem Quartet, © Felix Broede
Jerusalem Quartet,
© Felix Broede

After playing together for over a third of their young lives, the ensemble plays with remarkable cohesion and balance. In every piece, they realized the composer’s rich multi-part writing, never obscuring the interplay of countermelodies in the score.

All of the players were remarkably expressive with their bodies. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov seemed almost to dance with his instrument, at times leading, at others following, but always in perfect sway with the music. Truly, this kind of embodiment is essential to performing appropriately in the empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style).

When watching Zlotnikov, it is easy to understand how musicologists such as Elizabeth La Guin made connections between music and embodiment in classical cello repertoire. The physical spectacle of playing the instrument is part and parcel to the overall package – particularly due to the intimate ways in which players wrap their entire bodies to the instrument. Zlotnikov’s playing is not all physical affectation, however. Even eyes-closed, his line often sang out as the most sensitively shaped in the ensemble.

Some of his colleagues, however, seemed to match their physical gestures to their playing less effectively. Violinists Pavlovsky and Bresler, for example, would often lean back in their chairs synchronically when playing lines of ascending thirds. Inherently, nothing is ‘wrong,’ or ‘incorrect,’ with this gesture. However, physical gesture was so much a part of their playing, that when dissociating the embodiment of the music from the music itself, there was often little expression of depth of emotion left in the notes themselves.

The Debussy String Quartet in G minor was the most engaging and successful piece on the program. The first movement (Animé et très décidé), was so lively that Pavlovsky broke into a sweat. The pizzicato in the second (Assez vif et bien rythmé) were handled with finesse.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in G major, Op.18 no.2, began the program pleasantly. Though, the players failed to share in some of the wit the composer included in the score. In a nod to his teacher Haydn, one of the best-known musical jokesters, Beethoven included several amusing moments in this piece. But even the Scherzo, which itself means joke, was lacking in humor in the Jerusalems’ performance.

The Brahms String Quartet in A minor, Op.51 no.2, rounded out the second half of the concert program. Though the piece references several dance idioms, from the minuet to the czardas, it is certainly no cakewalk to play. Brahms spent twenty-two years drafting the piece, fearing he could never outdo Beethoven, one of the great forefathers of the string quartet.

Just over a half-hour in length, the quartet is almost symphonic in scale. Though technically the Jerusalem delivered the piece without a hitch, perhaps it will take another twenty-two years before they are able to dig at the work’s true emotional core.

Princeton University Concerts continues to deliver some of the most artistically excellent performances in the area. The Jerusalem String Quartet is no exception – and this talented young ensemble will certainly continue to flourish in the decades to come. Still, their performance lacked some of the excitement and passion I would hope to hear in a piece such as the Brahms quartet – which almost never fails to make me swoon just a bit.