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27 November 2009

Jerusalem Quartet and Zvi Plesser

Melbourne // VIC // 17.11.2009

Jerusalem Quartet Image: Jerusalem Quartet  
© Keith Saunders

In many ways, creating a companion piece to an established masterwork is asking for trouble. The main focus of Tuesday's concert was a performance of Schubert's String Quintet in C, in which the highly esteemed Jerusalem Quartet was joined by cellist Zvi Plesser. In addition to Mendelssohn's fourth quartet in E minor (Op. 44 No. 2), the concert also featured a new quintet by Carl Vine. In choosing the same instrumentation comparisons are inevitable, but Vine manages to present a sophisticated and memorable work, without attempting to match Schubert in depth and emotional substance.

The playing in the Mendelssohn set the tone and standard for the performance. The quartet is well blended, and phrase together with a unity of purpose. At times, the quartet was almost too well balanced. The piece is driven by rapid passage work in the middle voices, which was occasionally given too much prominence. It would have been good, had they allowed Pavlovski's first violin part a shade more expressive independence. It is difficult to know why this music is slightly unsatisfying. The craft is undeniable, the shaping always elegant, and structurally the piece is very solid. Possibly it was made to feel lightweight by the intensity of what was to follow.

Vine's strategy seemed to be to create a piece that works as an introduction to the Schubert. His quintet is laid out along classical lines of structure, compressing the main elements of sonata form into a tightly proportioned, single movement. Vine even respectfully borrows ideas from Schubert - he takes the melodic turn from Schubert's introduction, and allows it to characterise a swooping, triplet-laden first theme. The ornamentation adds an almost Eastern European flavour to this music, echoing the rustic gypsies suggested in Schubert's Scherzo.

Vine also appropriates other features of the earlier work, such as the sustained harmonic chords, the transitional unison lines and the work's concluding accelerando. Mirroring the older composer, the heart of Vine's work is the section that stands for the slow movement. Here, guest cellist Plesser was allowed to stand out from the quartet blend and lead the movement with some beautifully lyrical playing. The movement is based on a series of rhapsodic melodies shared by the cello and the first violin (like Schubert's is) and accompanied by shifting sustained harmonies in the middle voices. Vine's harmonic language does not permit him the richly poignant modulations that characterise Schubert's work, but he achieves interest and variety by constantly changing the instrumentation, intensity and register of the accompaniment.

After this, Vine's work begins to suffer (unfairly) by comparison. In telescoping his formal proportions, he doesn't really allow himself the space for development, though there is a detectable sense of organic growth in the work's thematic logic. In creating a piece to introduce Schubert's quintet, he has wisely avoided the passionate depths explored by Schubert, but prepared the listener by providing musical clues as to what is to follow. In his program note, Vine wonders why the two-cello quintet has such a small repertoire, but it's not so surprising, really. Certain instrumental combinations are defined by one insurmountably important work, and I'm thinking also of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Two Percussion in this regard, as pieces that are so well done as to discourage others from following.

Plesser continued to add further expressive detail to the quartet's interpretation, playing a major role in Schubert's Adagio, and driving the Scherzo hard. The concluding Allegretto brought the evening's performance to a rousing close. The pairing of these two works was successful by all accounts, and I would be very happy to hear other ensembles taking up this pairing.

Event Details

Jerusalem Quartet & Zvi Plesser
Music by Mendelssohn, Vine and Schubert
Alexander Pavlovski, violin; Sergei Bressler, violin; Amihai Grosz, viola; Kyril Zlotnikov, cello; Zvi Plesser, cello
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC
17 November 2009

Further links

Carl Vine - AMC profile
Musica Viva (www.musicaviva.com.au)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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