I am sure that, when opening a concert review, you expect to read comment on the performance of the compositions, complete with information about the historical background of the musical works and some information about the performers. However, there are some occasions in which the context (the space, the instruments played, the uniqueness of a performance) surpasses the nuances of the interpretation itself. The concert that took place at the Royal Palace of Madrid on 31 May was one of those occasions and – therefore – this review cannot be a usual one.

Jerusalem Quartet © Felix Broede
Jerusalem Quartet
© Felix Broede

The Jerusalem Quartet, an ensemble that will celebrate its 20th anniversary during the 2015/16, was responsible for the concert. Nonetheless, the genuine protagonist was the Stradivari quartet which is kept at the Royal Palace of Madrid. These four instruments are among the very few decorated ones built by Antonio Stradivari that have been preserved – just 11 in the whole world, while the cello is one of its kind. They are the only decorated instruments the maker is known to have conceived as a set. The collection arrived in Madrid in 1772; at that time, the Court of Spain, and especially the circle of Charles IV (by then the Prince of Asturias), had a leading role in the development of instrumental genres. The quartet was originally conceived as a quintet, but the two violas disappeared during the Napoleonic wars: the smaller one was recuperated in 1951, while the tenor viola has never been found.

In spite of the historical importance of this group of instruments, the possibility to listen to them in public had been scarce (performances on the Stradivari quartet had taken place for many years, but just before invited guests). This situation changed last year, when a concert series was programmed, and the musicians of the Quiroga Quartet were appointed artists in residence of the Royal Palace, playing regularly these unique instruments. Those concerts have taken place in the impressive Hall of Columns of the Royal Palace –a luxurious hall where some of the most determinant moments of the recent history of Spain have taken place.

The performance, developed under the attentive sight of Charles V dominating the Fury (a 19th century copy of the sculpture originally made by Leone Leoni), started with Beethoven’s String Quartet in D major, Op.18 no. 3. From the very beginning, the members of Jerusalem Quartet showed the wide sonority that would characterize their performance through the whole recital. The work, one of the earlier examples of Beethoven’s quartets is, in general terms, a pleasant composition and it was understood as such by the Quartet.  

A Stradivarius in the Palacio Real collection
A Stradivarius in the Palacio Real collection

After Beethoven’s gallant creation, it was the turn for Eduardo Toldrà’s Vistes al mar. Premièred in 1921, Vistes al mar is, together with Turina’s La oración del torero, one of the Spanish favorite compositions for string quartets among foreign ensembles. The reasons for this preference can be explained by attending to the quality of the music. The luminous character of the harmonies and the sensual mood of the melodies are structured in three movements, each of them inspired by a poem by Joan Maragall. The Quartet took advantage of these impressionist evocations to exhibit the quality of its sound, while its members demonstrated their great complicity. Especially remarkable were the unison passages, in which three of the instruments (the two violins and the viola) sounded like one, the cello creating a warming atmosphere.

The second half of the concert (without interval) was entirely devoted to Smetana’s Quartet no. 1 in E minor, “From my life”. The Jerusalem Quartet specializes in Smetana’s work; in fact, Harmonia Mundi has released an acclaimed CD with their recording of this quartet. The performance did not disappoint. The viola solo that opens “From my life” was played passionately by Ori Kam, announcing the intensity that would characterize the whole piece. The energy reached the point of explosion during the third movement, while the fourth was full of fire (it has to be noted that the first notes of this movement were not as clear as they should have been, but that was probably due to the acoustics of the hall).

This superb interpretation was recognized as such by the public, and the members of the Quartet chose Shostakovich’s “Polka”, from Two pieces for string quartet, as an encore. This playful miniature, not easy to play, is full of humour, and this humour was perfectly transmitted by the Jerusalem Quartet, whose members flawlessly tuned the dissonances of the piece. By playing Shostakovich, the Quartet was also announcing their next season, in which they will perform the quartets of the Soviet composer, a series to be warmly anticipated.