The Jerusalem Quartet has attracted much attention, both from critics, mostly overawed, and anti-Israel protesters, decidedly not. Ahead of their appearance with Sir András Schiff at Wigmore Hall (the third in a trio of concerts celebrating their 20th anniversary), security guards manned the main doors, lending the evening an uneasy, political charge.

The Jerusalem Quartet © Felix Broede
The Jerusalem Quartet
© Felix Broede

In Moscow, 1953, Mieczysław Weinberg was arrested on the charge of conspiring to set up a Jewish republic in the Crimea. His friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, wrote to the secret police petitioning his release and promised to adopt Weinberg’s children in the event of his wife also being taken. Moscow was the final destination in his flight from anti-semitism, a journey which had already taken him from his home in Poland to Belarus and Uzbekistan. The Piano Quintet Op.18 was written in 1944, shortly after his arrival in Moscow, before anti-semitism had been formally institutionalised in Soviet Russia. It’s a mercurial, cinematic musical landscape, evoking Weinberg’s unsettled, fugitive existence; unbridled emotional outbursts are crudely juxtaposed with whimsical, self-consciously musical interludes, as if switching focus between the inner-workings of Weinberg’s troubled mind and a sardonic fairground band. It’s interesting to ponder whether he inherited this liquid sense of musical style from Shostakovich, whom he greatly admired, or merely from their mutual circumstances.

Schiff and the Jerusalem Quartet were highly sensitive to the quintet’s fluid musical path, the quartet bringing the power of a small string orchestra to the ‘emotional’ music, heads pressed into their chin-rests, and a snooty whimsy to the ‘musical’ diversions, bottom lips out, eyebrows raised, heads tipped back (you could picture Weinberg and his friends playing for a few roubles at a society function). As is always the case when watching a piano quintet, the pianist was left lurking at the back, but Schiff was nonetheless part of this ensemble, very much leading it in the determined, but painfully inconclusive final movement. It was obvious how much this music meant to the Jerusalem Quartet, who were noticeably less engaged by the rest of the programme.

Schubert’s pithy Quartettsatz served as an overture and, like the upbeat to an opera, they’d only just finished setting the scene before it was over. There were early tuning issues and, with hindsight, it lacked the focus and commitment they later brought to the Weinberg; but this is only relative. They soon found composure and executed the movement with a strikingly tacit understanding of their collective journey through it. Still, listening with their brilliant recording in mind, it’s possibly a journey with which they are overly familiar.

Unlike Weinberg’s highly individual and relatively unknown quintet, there are many paths through the repertoire music of Brahms. I guess it’s both a blessing and a curse that well-known music offers these interpretative options, that it only truly exists in its realisation, since the first two movements of this evening Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor were not the Brahms I know. Shortly after the opening, Schiff served the quartet a rather stately tempo, putting them on the back-foot for the rest of the movement; they looked uncomfortable, as if they weren’t expecting it. Without a driving sense of flow, consecutive phrases became isolated and the ensemble was powerless to realise the movement’s full expressive potential. In particular, Schiff’s use of rubato began to wear as it drained the group’s momentum.

The second movement can have a very poignant searching quality, the piano seemingly alone amongst a simple but yearning string accompaniment, but this evening’s ‘realisation’ rendered it more of a salon piece, tripping along daintily; the string accompaniment, no more than an accompaniment. In Weinberg’s quintet there’s an audible tension between ‘emotional’ music and ‘musical’ music, and so it’s curious to consider how in the case of this Brahms, the performers can, to some extent, choose.

Of any movement in Brahms’ quintet the third is most like the Weinberg with its dual focus of steely and triumphant musics, and suddenly it was here that the group gelled; Schiff and the Jerusalem Quartet clearly connect with volatile music. There was never any doubt of their end-goal in the final movement, through which they navigated an utterly thrilling course.

It seems vindictive to criticize their Schubert and Brahms which were at no point flawed, but when critiquing the performance of such well-known, repertoire music, you’re really talking about their realisation, how they made the piece their own: their Schubert, their Brahms. Perhaps by the time of the Jerusalem Quartet’s 30th anniversary we’ll be able to discuss different realisations of Weinberg’s quintet, but for now it was a real coup to see Schubert and Brahms upstaged by this Russian composer, who we should all make the effort to explore.