“Passion, precision, warmth, a gold blend: these are the trademarks of this excellent Israeli string quartet.” —Times London

Violinist Hsin-Yun Huang gave “an electrifying performance.” —The Strad

Inon Barnatan is “a true poet of the keyboard” —The Evening Standard (London)

“Kyril Zlotnikov‘s cello sang out like a cherrywood Archangel.” —redefinemagazine.com

After hearing their new recording of Brahms’ lyrical and introspective String Quartet in A minor, Gramophone magazine proclaimed “Few command Brahms’s string quartet the way the Jerusalem do.” The Jerusalem’s Kyril Zlotnikov is the soloist in the Cello Sonata in E minor, Brahms’ first published sonata for a string instrument, which pays nostalgic tribute to Bach and Baroque music. After intermission, violist Hsin-Yun Huang joins the group for one of Brahms’ most joyful and ebullient works, Quintet for Strings in G major, written during a summer holiday in the Austrian Alps.

Jerusalem Quartet
      Alexander Pavlovsky, violin
      Sergei Bresler, violin
      Ori Kam, viola
      Kyril Zlotnikov, cello
Hsin-Yun Huang, viola
Inon Barnatan, piano

BRAHMS: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2
BRAHMS: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38
BRAHMS: Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111


This concert is approximately 1hour, 45 minutes long, with one intermission.

 

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Johannes Brahms - String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op.51 No 2

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BRAHMS: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2
Composed in c. 1865–1873; 32 minutes

In their final form, Brahms’s first two string quartets, Op. 51, Nos. 1 and 2, date from the summer of 1873. It had been two decades since Robert Schumann hailed the 20-year-old composer as a prodigy who had sprung forth “like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” But Brahms refused to let such fulsome accolades turn his head; to the end of his life he remained a diligent student for whom the craft of composition was at least as important as inspiration. Nowhere was a composer’s craft more mercilessly exposed than in the string quartet, a medium that had lain virtually dormant since the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert nearly half a century earlier. Brahms claimed to have written and destroyed no fewer than 20 quartets before he finally took up the challenge in earnest in his mid-thirties.

He developed his ideas by a painstaking process of trial and error, subjecting successive drafts to painstaking revisions and soliciting advice from his friend Josef Joachim, whose quartet played through the works-in-progress. In 1872 Brahms accepted the directorship of Vienna’s prestigious Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and for much of that and the following year he was preoccupied with planning programs and leading rehearsals. Not until June 1873 was he able to break away for a working vacation in the Bavarian town of Tutzing. There, in addition to completing his enduringly popular Variations on a Theme by Haydn, he finally signed off on the Op. 51 quartets. Even then, he was far from satisfied. “I give myself the greatest trouble and keep on hoping that something really great and difficult will occur to me,” he wrote despondently to his publisher, “and they turn out mean and paltry!”

Brahms’s diffidence notwithstanding, the A-minor Quartet is at once “really great” and in some respects “difficult,” both to categorize and to apprehend. In part this stems from the composer’s lifelong struggle to reconcile the classical and romantic strains in his musical language. The classicist is very much to the fore in the opening Allegro non troppo, with its well-proportioned themes and clearly delineated sonata form. The shy, halting melody of the Andante moderato carries us into more personal, introspective territory, while in the third movement, marked Quasi minuetto, Brahms adopts an unconventional multipart structure reminiscent of the late Beethoven quartets. The bravura Finale is a highly rhythmicized romp with a distinctly “Hungarian” flavor. At the end, a quiet echo of the first movement’s principal theme sets up a mad dash to the final cadence.

Although the A-minor Quartet is not among Brahms’s most ingratiating works—as indicated by the audience’s less-than-ecstatic response to the Berlin premiere by the Joachim Quartet in October 1873—contemporaries recognized it as a masterpiece. Both Op. 51 quartets are dedicated to Theodor Billroth, Brahms’s surgeon friend in Vienna and an accomplished amateur violist. Billroth knew better than to take the composer’s habitual self-deprecation at face value. “These dedications will keep our names known longer than our best work,” he predicted to a fellow dedicatee. History has proven him right.

© 2014 Harry Haskell

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BRAHMS: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38

Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38
Composed in 1862–1865; 25 minutes

The first of Brahms’s published duo sonatas, the Cello Sonata in E minor, dates from the early 1860s. It was a period of upheaval in the composer’s life—disappointed in his hope of winning a major conducting post in his native Hamburg, he decided to try his luck in Vienna—but also of growing recognition: In the spring of 1862, the critic Adolf Schubring hailed the 29-year-old Brahms as a worthy successor to Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. In Vienna, Brahms told Schubring that he revered “the sacred memory of the great musicians of whose lives and work we are daily reminded. In the case of Schubert especially, one has the impression of his still being alive. Again and again one comes across new works, the existence of which was unknown and which are so untouched that one can scrape the very writing–sand off them.”

In highlighting the cello’s lower register, the E-minor Sonata evokes the burnished, baritonal sound world of Schubert’s great C-major String Quintet (scored for two cellos). Fittingly, the sonata is dedicated to Joseph Gänsbacher, an Austrian voice teacher and cellist who was coeditor of Schubert’s collected works. In the summer of 1862, when he wrote the first two movements of the Cello Sonata, Brahms was working on his own double-cello quintet (destined to be reincarnated as the Piano Quintet in F minor). Both works display the combination of lyricism and drama to which Schubring alluded when he wrote that Brahms “understands how to be Classic and Romantic, ideal and real—and after all, I believe he is appointed to blend both these eternal oppositions in art.”

The E-minor Sonata is cast in three movements, all in quick tempos, rather than the customary four. (Brahms composed a slow movement in 1862 but set it aside on the advice of friends; two decades later he recycled it in his Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major.) The opening Allegro non troppo is built around a warmly urgent eight-bar theme that surges from the depths of the cello’s C string against a simple, off-beat accompaniment. The piano part, spare-textured and unassertive at first, soars to a massive climax as the cello’s music becomes increasingly impassioned. But classical restraint soon reasserts itself and the movement’s feverish energy subsides in a luminous E-major coda.

The Allegretto quasi minuetto is an oasis of calm between the turbulence of the outer movements. The piano and cello dance a delicate triple-time minuet, circling around each other in playful canonic imitation; its classical poise contrasts with the flowing romantic lines of the middle Trio section. Brahms, a diligent student of Baroque counterpoint, appended the driving, fugal-style Allegro to the first two movements in 1865. The subject announces itself with a dramatic downward leap of an octave, then scurries along in a typically Brahmsian blend of duple and triple meters. The balance between the two instruments is notoriously problematic. One cellist complained to Brahms that he couldn’t make himself heard over the piano in the finale. “You’re lucky,” the tart-tongued composer is said to have replied.

Photo: Joseph Gänsbacher

© 2014 Harry Haskell

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BRAHMS: Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111

Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111
Composed in 1890; 29 minutes

In December 1890, Brahms presented his publisher with the manuscript of his second string quintet, accompanied by a terse message: “With this slip, bid farewell to notes of mine.” In the event, the composer soon got a fresh wind and went on to pen some of his most beguiling works, including the Clarinet Trio and Quintet, the Four Serious Songs and the late Intermezzi for solo piano. Yet it surely says something about Brahms’s psychological state that he should have chosen to designate this lighthearted, energetic work as his swan song. His close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg put her finger on the Quintet’s special quality when Brahms sent her a manuscript copy of the score:

“I was so inspired by your earlier Quintet in F major,” she wrote to the composer, “that the new one seemed to stand but a poor chance (old friends are best!); but I am now faithless enough to admit that it surpasses the older work in beauty, grace and depth of feeling.... The Quintet held me from the very start and I found myself back in the atmosphere of the G-major Sextet [written in 1864-1865]. It is all wonderfully clear and compact; distinct in its manner of expression.... He who can invent all this must be in a happy frame of mind! It is the work of a man of thirty!”

The Op. 111 Quintet opens in a blaze of youthful high spirits, the cello’s strenuous melody struggling to surface from underneath a flood of s16th notes in the four upper voices. (One cellist protested that the passage was unplayable as written, but Brahms stubbornly refused to make any alterations.) A quietly lilting second theme provides a wistful contrast, and the sky darkens momentarily in the magically ethereal development section. But the movement’s exhilarating energy proves irrepressible. A plangent and richly expressive Adagio in D minor (highlighting the husky timbre of the violas) leads to a restless, waltz-like Allegretto that flits between G minor and G major. The final Vivace has a rollicking gypsy flavor. When Brahms’s biographer Max Kalbeck quipped that the quintet should be subtitled “Brahms in the Prater,” alluding to Vienna’s famous urban playground, the composer reportedly shot back, “You’ve got it! Among all the pretty girls, eh?”

The Rosé Quartet, supplemented by a second violist, gave the first performance of the G-major Quintet in Vienna on November 11, 1890. Some critics remained impervious to its charms. As one wrote, “The themes, although treated so effectively and elaborately, seem nonetheless more and more thought rather than felt, more constructed than discovered. One is so seldom in one’s innermost soul touched by Brahms.” Nevertheless, the popular verdict was nothing short of rapturous. When the violinist Joseph Joachim performed the quintet in Berlin on December 10, the audience was so demonstrative that he was forced—“against my principles,” as he pointedly informed the composer—to encore the slow movement.

Photo: Elisabet von Herzogenberg

© 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 II

    Date: Sat, Oct 25, 2014, 8 pm

    Location: Lexington Avenue at 92nd St

    Venue: Kaufmann Concert Hall

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