“An absolute triumph. Their playing has everything you could possibly wish for.” —BBC Music
“A most imaginative and individual artist”—Gramophone
“A player of uncommon sensitivity” —The New Yorker

Jerusalem Quartet
      Alexander Pavlovsky, violin
      Sergei Bresler, violin
      Ori Kam, viola
      Kyril Zlotnikov, cello
Sharon Kam, clarinet
Inon Barnatan, piano

BRAHMS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
BRAHMS: Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2
BRAHMS: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115

 

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Brahms Clarinet Quintet Op. 115, 3. Andantino - Presto non assai, ma con sentimento

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BRAHMS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
Composed in c. 1865–1873; 29 minutes

In a famous article titled “New Paths,” published in 1853, Robert Schumann lauded the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, whom he had just met for the first time, as a genius who seemed to have sprung forth “like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” As Brahms auditioned his works for the older composer at the piano, Schumann felt himself being “drawn into ever deeper circles of enchantment.... There were sonatas, rather veiled symphonies—songs, whose poetry one could understand without knowing the words...single pianoforte pieces, partly demoniacal, of the most graceful form—then sonatas for violin and piano—quartets for strings—and every one so different from the rest that each seemed to flow from a separate source.”

We may never know anything about the early string quartets that worked their spell on Schumann, for Brahms destroyed each and every one of them. In fact, by the time he began work on his C-minor Quartet in the mid- to late 1860s, Brahms had by his own count written and discarded no fewer than 20 quartets, none of which apparently measured up to his exacting standards. As in contemplating his first symphony, Brahms was paralyzed by the thought of following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, especially at a time when the string quartet had fallen out of favor with his fellow “progressive” composers. Friends were constantly asking when his first quartet would be ready, and Brahms became adept at putting them off.

“It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six early quartets,” he reminded his publisher, Fritz Simrock, in 1869, “so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done. They should not fail you, but if I were a publisher I should not be in such a hurry.” Simrock was the soul of patience; four years later he was still waiting for Brahms to deliver when he received a letter containing further discouraging news: “I give myself the greatest trouble and keep on hoping that something really great and difficult will occur to me, and they turn out mean and paltry!” A few weeks later Brahms finally admitted to himself that he would never be fully satisfied and shipped the two Op. 51 quartets off to Simrock.

Whatever misgivings he may have felt about the works’ quality, ingratiating himself with the public clearly was not uppermost in Brahms’s mind. The Op. 51 quartets are among his most severe and uncompromising chamber works. The urgently rising motif that opens the C-minor Quartet, like a tightly coiled spring, generates a tension that doesn’t unwind until a few bars before the final C-major cadence. (The same motif recurs at the beginning of the fourth movement, illustrating Brahms’s growing concern with large-scale thematic unity.) The two inner movements provide an interlude of bittersweet introspection, but the dark, intense drama of the opening Allegro reemerges in the finale, a sustained burst of energy characterized by restless cross-rhythms and intricate part writing.

Photo: Brahms, age 20

© 2014 Harry Haskell

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BRAHMS: Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2

Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2
Composed in 1894; 22 minutes

In January 1891 Brahms made an extended visit to Meiningen, where his friend and ardent champion Hans von Bülow led the renowned court orchestra. The 57-year-old composer was gradually withdrawing from public life; the Op. 111 String Quintet in G major, composed in the fall of 1890, was meant to be his swan song. In Meiningen, however, Brahms found himself unexpectedly bowled over by the playing of the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld. It is to Mühlfeld’s virtuosity—Brahms dubbed him the “nightingale of the orchestra” —that we owe the late flowering of his interest in the clarinet as expressed in the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, both written in 1891, as well as the two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano, Op. 120, of 1894.

Brahms had both practical and personal reasons for writing optional viola parts for the Clarinet Sonatas and Trio. For one thing, he and his publisher wanted to capture the widest possible market for the sheet music. (Schumann published a number of his chamber works in alternate instrumental versions for the same reason.) For another, Brahms, like Mozart, had a special affinity for the viola. He used its burnished, caramely timbre to wondrous effect in both his orchestral works and his chamber music, notably the great string quintets and sextets, and the Two Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Viola and Piano. As Brahms’s last pieces of instrumental chamber music, the two Op. 120 sonatas may be said to represent his final thoughts in a medium to which he had contributed more than his share of masterworks.

The Allegro amabile of the E-flat-major Sonata is both amiable and characteristically warm-blooded, its sweetly yearning first theme contrasting with lyrical effusions of a more muscular variety. The younger Brahms would have developed this material more elaborately and at greater length, but at this stage of his life economy, transparency and directness of expression were paramount. The music is steeped in mellow wistfulness, as if the composer is looking back indulgently over a life filled with love and disappointment. Even the fiery Allegro appassionato, in E-flat minor, is tinged with regret; the impetuous ardor of the outer sections is tempered by the noble resolve of the major-key interlude. In lieu of a conventional finale, Brahms substitutes a genial, richly inventive theme-and-variations movement, marked Andante con moto, that combines passion and reflection in equal measure.

Photo: Hans von Bülow

© 2014 Harry Haskell

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BRAHMS: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115

Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
Composed in 1891; 37 minutes

Brahms had more or less decided to throw in the towel in December 1890, when he presented his publisher with the manuscript of his Op. 111 String Quintet. “With this slip, bid farewell to notes of mine,” he wrote in a message that accompanied the score. As it turned out, the composer’s valedictory was premature. A few weeks later, Brahms met the virtuoso clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in Meiningen, who provided a fresh source of inspiration for his magnificent Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.

Brahms’s Op. 115 has few precedents—of the handful of clarinet quintets he might have known, only those by Mozart and Weber have stood the test of time. (Each of these works was also composed with a specific performer in mind—the clarinetists Anton Stadler and Heinrich Bärmann, respectively.) But Brahms needed no models to convince him that the clarinet had been unjustly neglected. He even went so far as to tell a friend that it was “much more adapted to the piano than string instruments”—a surprising statement from the composer of three great piano trios and an equal number of piano quartets, not to mention the F-minor Piano Quintet. Brahms’s affinity for the clarinet, with its unique ability both to blend and to stand out in the company of keyboard and string instruments, opened a new channel of inspiration. The “autumnal” quality often associated with the music of his twilight years owes much to the instrument’s silky, baritonal timbre, especially the reedy complexity of its low chalumeau register (which Brahms exploited as masterfully as Mozart).

Completed in the late summer of 1891, the Clarinet Quintet received its first public performance in Berlin in early December, with Mühlfeld joining the celebrated Joachim Quartet. Despite its far from sunny disposition, the work scored an immediate success and was soon heard in Vienna, London, Boston, New York and other major cities. The opening Allegro, with its long-breathed melodies and Schubertian alternation of minor and major tonalities, casts a bittersweet aura. In the Adagio, the clarinet’s yearning cantilena, wafted above quietly pulsing strings, frames a series of brilliant cadenza-like flourishes reminiscent of Hungarian folk music. Brahms lightens both the texture and the mood in the third and fourth movements. The former takes the place of the conventional scherzo, while the Con moto is a set of variations showcasing each instrument in turn. It leads, by way of a subtle modulation from duple to triple meter, to a reprise of the rippling theme with which the quintet began.

The violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s long-time friend and artistic confidant, anticipated the verdict of history when he hailed the Clarinet Quintet as “one of the sublimest things he ever wrote.” Clara Schumann echoed the sentiment in her diary: “It is a really marvelous work; the wailing clarinet takes hold of one; it is most moving.” Not long after the premiere, Brahms reportedly attended a performance of the work in Mühlfeld’s home at which Arthur Nikisch, one of his favorite conductors, was present. As the final notes died away, according to one witness, Nikisch fell on his knees before the composer in a gesture of wordless admiration.

Photo: Richard Mühlfeld

© 2014 Harry Haskell

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Artist Bio

The Jerusalem Quartet

With their founding in the 1993/1994 season and subsequent 1996 debut, the Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kam, viola; Kyril Zlotnikov, cello) embarked on a journey of growth and maturation that has resulted in a wide repertoire and a stunning depth of expression: a journey still motivated by the energy and curiosity with which the ensemble began. The ensemble of four Israeli musicians carries on the string quartet tradition in a unique manner.

The ensemble has found its inner center in a warm, full, human sound and the balance between high and low voices, giving it the freedom both to refine its interpretations of the classical repertoire and to explore the works of new genres and epochs. It has collaborated with exceptional musicians such as Martin Fröst, Steven Isserlis, Sharon Kam, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Alexander Melnikov and András Schiff.

The Jerusalem Quartet is a regular and welcome guest on the world’s great concert stages. The ensemble has been especially well-received in North America, where it has performed in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Washington. The 2012/13 season saw two extended tours through the US. In Europe, as well, the quartet enjoys an enthusiastic reception, having appeared in prominent concert halls such as the Zürich Tonhalle, the Munich Herkulessaal, Wigmore Hall in London, and the Parisian Salle Pleyel, as well as special guest performances at the Auditorium du Louvre Paris, the Hamburg Ostertöne Festival and at the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg.

The Jerusalem Quartet has an exclusive recording contract with Harmonia Mundi. Recordings of Haydn’s string quartets and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” have been honored with numerous awards such as the Diapason d’or, the BBC Music Magazine Award for chamber music, and the ECHO Klassik. In 2003, the Quartet placed at the first Borletti-Buitoni Trust Awards. From 1999 to 2001, it was part of the new series BBC New Generation Artists.

The string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich were the focus of the 2013/2014 season. The ensemble presented the entire quartet cycle in New York’s Alice Tully Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The season’s programs also featured works by Mozart, Haydn and Brahms, as well as the premiere of Brian Elias’s string quartets. The newest recording of works by Leoš Janáček und Bedřich Smetana came out this past January 2014, further securing the quartet’s place among world-class ensembles. The Jerusalem Quartet will celebrate its 20th anniversary in the 2015/2016 season. Its website is jerusalem-quartet.com.

Photo by Felix Broede

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  • Jerusalem Quartet: Intimate Brahms I

    Date: Thu, Oct 23, 2014, 7:30 pm

    Location: Lexington Avenue at 92nd St

    Venue: Kaufmann Concert Hall

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