Shostakovich de-constructed – The Jerusalem Quartet’s perspective of music behind the iron curtain.
The Jerusalem Quartet (front to back – Kyril Zlotnikov(cello) , Ori Kam(viola) Alexander Pavlovsky( first violin), Sergei Bresler (second violin)Photo: Alex Broede
“They are all great, each one of them,” says Alexander Pavlovsky, first violinist of the Jerusalem Quartet, when asked if he had any favorites within the grand total of 15 string quartets that form a thread throughout Shostakovich’s oeuvre, which mirrors its historic place and time almost like no other. The members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who all possess strong roots of Russian heritage, can certainly relate. “Even if you would not know anything about the background, against which this music developed in, it would be disturbing. But he gives you a window into this specific historic connection, something, we can relate to, often by deconstructing traditional structures into little motives, he then uses in a very modern and individual manner,” says Ori Kam, who joined the group in 2011, replacing founding violist Amitai Grosz. Contrarily to Pavlovsky, Kam does have personal preferences among Shostakovich’s quartets: “This is perhaps the most perfect quartet,” he says, about String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor (Op. 108). Quartet No. 7 was composed in February and March of 1960 in memory of Shostazovich’s first wife, Nina Vassilyevna Varzar, who died in December 1954; the piece was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, with whom Shostakovich worked closely throughout his life. “[No.7] somehow summarizes all the elements Shostakovich explores in Quartets 1-6. It is at once modern in language, but classical and compact in its structure and in the way it treats the thematic material.” Pavlovsky admits to loving Quartet No. 6, noting its “spring, flowers, positive emotions…and many beautiful solos.” So there are favorites after all, No. 6 being one of the group’s favorites to program, with its clever cello resolutions ending each movement with the same motif.
Shostakovich was a staple of this young chamber group, comprised of musicians who found each other in 1993 while studying at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy (founded by Isaac Stern) under the tutelage of Rumanian violinist Avi Abramovich. From the beginning, it was clear that enormous individual talent had ignited a group dynamic much greater than the sum of its parts. Thanks to extraordinary circumstances, permissions were granted to maintain the unity of the young musicians who, having been born in Israel, had to commit two and a half years to the Israeli Defense Forces; the musicians were kept together, able to continue the development of their unique gift.
The extraordinary Quartet toured and recorded for Harmonia Mundi, rewarded with great success from early on. Violist Ori Kam had met all of his fellow musicians in the quartet through mutual festival performances early in his career, but he was especially close with the group’s cellist, Kyril Zlotnikov. Both musicians coach the viola/cello section of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, that supports cultural bridging of the Middle East conflict through musical performance.
As Israelis, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet have experienced their share of Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel aggression from vehement forces that never miss an opportunity to voice their displaced anger. This circumstance seems especially unfair in light of the fact that all four musicians have very different personal political stances. They all agree on this: “We are musicians, not politicians.”
When Kam joined the quartet, after a short stint with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the other members had already previously performed the entire Shostakovich cycle. Kam had just performed three of the quartets prior to joining the Jerusalem Quartet, and admits to not having been a great Shostakovich fan from the get-go: “There was no question that he was one of the great talents in music, but I felt there was something manipulated within his music, almost disrespectful towards his own talent. He could write the perfect fugue- but instead there came a reaction like: ‘You want a fugue – here, I will give you a fugue!!’ I felt unease with his need to appease party members, to create a forced, idealistic and heroic Russian identity, turning cheap in the process. I like a direct and dynamic approach, here I felt something twisted.
“Yet, and this is the advantage of examining musical elements in such a wide musical frame, like the cycle of all his 15 quartets, you get a different overall perspective. While performing some singular Shostakovich quartets within differing programs, I may not always have had the most intuitive approach, it turns out the parts that seemed the most problematic ones contain also the most interesting elements. One starts to recognize repeating elements that lose their academic approach and gain immediacy. That’s how great music works – the violin recitative appears again in the cello passage… you take an idea and explore in a different context.”
During the first of four consecutive Sunday concerts this month, a sold-out event for the Chamber Music Society at Alice Tully Hall, the perfect homogeneity of sound was clearly something the audience was able to witness throughout the performance of the Shostakovich String Quartet cycle. The musical experience was brought to its highest effect with the somber last quartet, No 15 in E-flat minor, op. 144 written in 1974, possibly conceived as a requiem following in the tradition led by the Borodin Quartet; it was performed in a completely darkened hall.
In the course of the master class offered by the four musicians as a part of their presentation on March 18th, it became clear that the secret behind the Jerusalem Quartet’s excellent sound is that every detail in building their program is fine-tuned: “The depth of an interpretation, when you feel things…that’s still very different when someone understands why that is. For example this crescendo here, it has to build up evenly, it will come in time, inevitably, generating excitement and tension. The audience is a lot smarter than some of us give them credit for; they are going to make a connection, every time that theme comes again. The most important thing in chamber music is that the four people know what the others think about. We discuss a lot during rehearsals and usually find a common denominator. Often different opinions are nuanced, and not necessarily that different: for example if it is about tempo markings- you can do a slower tempo with a more flowing feeling or a faster one, with a more static feeling to it. Once we get to the bottom, what the other one imagines within the music, it turns out to be not that adversary, as we had thought it to be.
Our job is always to differentiate our four voices, that can’t just be done by volume: it has to be within the bigger shape, giving contour inside, to show the harmonic structure better. That’s the constant battle: you give too many details one gets lost -too much structure – it’s boring.”
The Jerusalem Quartet has clearly achieved complete balance, sustaining individual artistry while maintaining a vibrant group dynamic.