Jerusalem Quartet finds space to soar in Bartók’s stark landscape

Sun Jan 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm

The Jerusalem Quartet performed music of Bartók Thursday night at Lincoln Center.

Béla Bartók’s string quartets are navigated as much as they’re played. But in between their thorny style, fixed markers and tight boundaries, good musicians can always find room.

The Jerusalem Quartet, performing three of the six works Thursday night at Lincoln Center’s intimate Rose Studio, was up to a central challenge posed by Bartók’s writing — making harmonies set in close, even claustrophobic, intervals soar.

In part one of a Bartók cycle presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the group’s exacting treatments of quartets 1, 3 and 5 did not attempt to soften the composer for public hearing. The rough beauty of these compositions remained intact, and Bartók’s version of “difficult” polyphony still sounds as daring as the experiments of his early 20th century counterparts, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

The Quartet No. 1 (1907-1909) actually predates the 12-tone rows and notes-to-numbers serialism of Schoenberg. Bartók could be said to have arrived, earlier, at a similar place as Schoenberg. He just traveled a different route, stretching traditional harmony to its limits in order to cross the old folk-music strains of his native Hungary with contemporary developments.

Bartók would label this technique “polymodal chromaticism” — melodies strung side by side at unorthodox, half- and whole-step intervals, but always within the assigned key. The term is a mouthful that sounds a bit like the music described.

But the Jerusalem Quartet demonstrated that these chamber works, in all of their multisyllabic ambition, are as elegant as any devised by Haydn, the originator of the string-quartet form, and by those that followed from Mozart and Beethoven to Shostakovich.

The First Quartet, is essentially one movement traveling a dark, descending current, and then two movements charting a path back to equilibrium. The violinists, Alexander Pavlovsky and Segei Bresler, were a kind of synchronized duo, harmonizing in phrases that ran in parallel, split apart and merged into sharp unison. Ori Kam on viola and Kyril Zlotnikov on cello created the deep, subterranean pull of the opening Lento, and later, the tectonic lift to return the entire quartet to the surface.

The movements in either direction were highly contested — the high strings on the one hand sparring with the low strings on the other all the way up and down the scale. Even within those two subsets, the paired voices sounded somewhat at odds, since harmonies in such close quarters, at intervals smaller than thirds, unavoidably sound like abrasions and collisions. Resolution waited until the last bars, with all four instruments converging in a cathartic, bleeding fifth.

A shorter piece by half at about 15 minutes, but divided into four movements, the Quartet No. 3 (1927), is the most effects-laden of the cycle. The opening strokes of violin yielded ghostly harmonics and overtones, and from there No. 3 played out like a frenetic dance, propelled along on pizzicato volleys and waves of glissando. For all of the athleticism and percussive technique needed to put across this challenging score, the Jerusalem Quartet members imbued it with soulfulness and longing.

The Quartet No. 5 (1934) was an apt finale — a long-form embodiment of ideas that Bartók had introduced in earlier works and then evolved over decades. No. 5 contains the striving and restlessness that marked its predecessors, and a more pronounced air of grace in its use of melody and spacing— and a slightly perverse sense of humor in its use of references.

For a composition said to be rooted partly in ancient folk, No. 5 also sounds surprisingly urbane in its opening Allegro, and the Jerusalem Quartet didn’t shy away from the city-life hum of the first movement’s pulsing string figures. The Adagio Molto that followed was more solitary, an elegy announced with mournful legato and sustained with a less dizzying range of notes and sounds.

That quiet spell primes the last three movements to deliver an even bigger emotional wallop, and the Jerusalem Quartet made good on the composition’s promise. The musicians put all of Bartók’s urgency and dynamism on display, and with none of the details lost or obscured.

Motifs were floated and then playfully inverted, and the entire arrangement followed suit, with the high strings laying down a bed of sound for soloing by the lower-register pair. Elsewhere, violins inched upwards while the cello and viola descended the same sheer, chromatic face. The cellist Zlotnikov was–and had to be–a concussive force of nature throughout, snapping off pizzicato notes and dropping his bow on the strings to produce thumping chords when he wasn’t providing a harmonic foundation.

But nobody — least of all the musicians — was permitted to get too blissfully lost in all of the grand topography and intricate braiding, because Bartók also booby-trapped Quartet No. 5 with isolated fragments of peasant dance music and lilting folk melody — the chamber-music equivalent of sampling. The Jerusalem Quartet integrated these little, quotational surprises without a hitch–or at least no more of a hitch than the author intended–and then returned to the larger themes, bringing the quartet and the program to a stately close.

The Chamber Music Society’s Bartók cycle concludes 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 4.

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