Jerusalem Quartet’s Bartók is more elegant than hard-edged; Heath Quartet’s Tchaikovsky is vigorous and sweeping.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
No sooner did the Chiara Quartet come out with a fantastic, intense recording of the complete Bartók string quartets (played from memory, no less) than the Jerusalem Quartet released a disc of their own on harmonia mundi that features the three even-numbered ones. The two performances could hardly be more different in approach, yet both pack a punch and each take is, by and large, convincing.
As a rule, the Jerusalem’s playing in all three quartets is more elegant and refined than hard-edged. This approach works best in the more elegiac Second and Sixth Quartets. Indeed, the opening movement of the former sounds almost like something Brahms might have written had he lived another twenty years (and continued his enthusiasm for Hungarian folk music). Its ferocious second movement isn’t as edgy as it can get, possesses plenty of power, all the same, and the finale is simply devastating.
In the Sixth Quartet, the Jerusalem’s get the opening refrains of each movement to sing with desperation. And they realize each subsequent section with a mix of melancholy and irony that’s striking. The “Marcia” kicks and swings with almost Mahlerian nostalgia. The quarter tones in the “Burletta” sting. And, frankly, I’ve never heard a recording of the finale sounded more honest-to-God sad than does this one.
Only in the Fourth Quartet does the Jerusalem’s interpretive tack run into problems, and then mainly in the outer movements, which sound rather too cultivated for their earthy content. But the middle movements succeed better than not: rigorously accurate, featuring rock-steady ensemble, and shaped with care. The central “night music” movement is brilliantly austere.
Overall, then, this disc is a testament to the expressive durability of Bartók’s oeuvre and a demonstration of how truly modern music can fit into a (more or less) traditional glove.
Tchaikovsky’s chamber music isn’t really neglected but it doesn’t always fall into the first tier that’s usually reserved for the works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. Given the vigorous, sweeping performance the Heath Quartet deliver in their new on harmonia mundi recording of his String Quartets nos. 1 and 3, perhaps its time to reconsider Tchaikovsky’s ranking.
There’s a brilliance to their playing of the opening movement in the First Quartet that’s not far removed from Mendelssohn: it’s bright, exuberant, and brilliant. And this is followed by a wonderfully straightforward rendition of the justly famous, lyrical second movement. The third whirls with spades of Slavic color while the finale, with its captivating energy and high spirits, returns to the mood of the first movement and anticipates the best moments to come in the Souvenir de Florence. Throughout, the Heath’s don’t milk the music for any false (or exaggerated) sentiment. They simply let the notes speak and get out of the way. The result is a reading of this piece that’s fresh and winning.
The Third Quartet is a completely different expressive beast, which makes for a nice contrast on this album. Its emotional terrain is more complex, its tone darker, and its musical structure more symphonic. So it’s great to have such soulful guides as violinist Oliver Heath and cellist Chris Murray leading the way through the expansive first movement. Their playing in the introduction is broad and inviting, and those characteristics carry through the remainder of the piece, which always comes across as texturally clear and rhythmically tight.
In the second movement, the Heath Quartet doesn’t shy away from expressive portamenti – there are some great viola ones in the trio section – and the bow attacks on the recurring sforzandi sometimes sound like something out of Kurtág. But that’s not a problem: they fit the overriding spiritual affect, where whimsy and sadness sit side-by-side.
Theirs is an aching performance of the songful third movement, drawing out the music’s many dissonances. The finale clears away its gloom like the bright sun after a hurricane. In all, it’s a smart pairing intelligently played, and a fine showcase for one of the best young quartets in the business today.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.