Jerusalem Quartet

NEC’s Jordan Hall

The Jerusalem Quartet is renowned for their remarkable individual versatility in addition to their exceptional musical teamwork. Their seamless blend and richly characterized and stirring performances are making them a global audience favorite. The Jerusalem Quartet’s two previous appearances on the Series in 2014 and 2016 were immensely popular and their return is greatly anticipated.

Program

Joseph Haydn | Quartet in D minor, Opus 76, no. 2, “Fifths”    Read notes

Béla Bartók | Quartet No. 4  Read notes

Johannes Brahms | Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, no. 1  Read notes

Media Partner

“An absolute triumph. Their playing has everything you could possibly wish for.”

The New York Times

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

The Times, London

An Aaron Richmond Recital

Endowed by Nancy Richmond Winsten and the late Dr. Joseph Winsten.

Additional support provided by the Consulate General of Israel to New England and Sharon & Howard Rich.

This performance is made possible in part by support from Celebrity Series LIVE PERFORMANCE! Arts for All Endowment Funds. Additional support provided by The Goldenheim Family, Stephen M. Leonard, Kate & Tom Kush, and Marilyn Miller.

NEC’s Jordan Hall

30 Gainsborough Street, Boston

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Notes on the program

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Quartet in D minor, Opus 76, no. 2 “Fifths”

In 1795, Joseph Haydn returned from his second visit to London and settled in Vienna to live out his remaining years. By the standards of the time, he had achieved unusual longevity by reaching the age of 63. Mozart, whom Haydn had greatly admired, had died four years before, and Beethoven, at this time, was still quite young. England had showered wealth and honors on Haydn, and he had lingered there for two months after his last concert before going home to the Continent.

No one had any idea how different the work of Haydn’s last years would be from what had preceded it. He had written more than a hundred symphonies, but after the dozen masterpieces that he had composed expressly for London audiences, he never wrote another; yet with the knowledge of Handel’s oratorios that he had acquired in London, Haydn modernized and revitalized that form in his own The Creation and The Seasons. He also composed six masses and some other sacred music for the princely Esterházy family for whom he had served as staff conductor and composer for 30 years.

Haydn’s greatest music until this time had always been found in his instrumental works, but in the last years, he wrote almost none except for a few string quartets, music that sums up a lifetime of supreme invention. In 1797, he wrote the six quartets we know as Op. 76, and in 1799, the two of Op. 77.  He started another in 1803, but gave up after two movements, which he allowed to be published in 1806 with the apologetic message, “All my strength is gone; I am old and weak.” He wrote the last eight completed quartets with the kind of controlled freedom that comes only with great maturity. Their rich instrumental texture is very modern for its time; some historians have even said it anticipates Brahms.

Count Joseph Erdödy, Chamberlain and Privy State Counselor to the Emperor, commissioned the six Op. 76 Quartets and of course, Haydn dedicated them to him. The Erdödys were an important family, noble and musical, related by marriage to Haydn’s former employers, the Esterházys. Count Ladislaus Erdödy is listed among the subscribers to Mozart’s Vienna concerts in 1783, and Beethoven dedicated his two Trios, Op. 70 (1808) and two Cello Sonatas, Op. 102 (1815) to his pupil, the Countess Maria, wife of Count Peter Erdödy.

The Op. 76, D-minor Quartet, the second of the set, takes its nickname “Fifths” from the opening descending motive of the Allegro first movement, whose first and second pairs of notes are spaced five steps apart. Haydn uses the simple interval of a fifth rather than a full-length melody as the principal theme of this rather dark and seemingly troubled movement in D minor; this opening motif generates the whole work to come. The critic Reginald Barrett-Ayres calls this example of monothematic unity “the most superb treatment of concentrated thought in all of Haydn’s quartets.” With so highly focused a subject for musical discussion, Haydn allows his imagination to roam, fully exploiting his contrapuntal skill and the virtuosity of the string players for whom he was writing. He compresses the recapitulation of this intense sonata-form movement to allow space for a protracted coda.

Next comes a three-part slow movement, in D major, contrasting with the first movement in its relaxed mood. It is, in reality, not very slow, Andante o più tosto Allegretto, and its third part is a brilliant variation on the first. The first violin plays the subject with pizzicato accompaniment from the other strings, incorporating some unusual accents and a strange somewhat self-aware hesitancy; overall, there is a sense of the tongue-in-cheek about this movement, but through it, sunshine gleams.

The main section of the minuet, Allegro ma non troppo, a canon for two instrumental “voices” in D minor, pitches the violins an octave apart, followed, after a single measure, by the viola and cello, who are also an octave apart. The movement has a contrasting central section that is nicknamed Hexenmenuett, or “The Witches’ Minuet,” for its serious tone and seemingly intentional lack of grace. The famous early 20th-century music historian Donald Tovey called it “clowns dancing with flat feet.” The trio, which becomes major in its tonality, features the first violin high above the other instruments.

Returning to D minor, the quartet ends with a Vivace assai finale, a peasant dance in the Gypsy style that the Viennese composers often used so brilliantly in music written for their Hungarian benefactors, featuring a syncopated principal theme, replete with teasing pauses. In its course, Haydn manages to reintroduce the motive in fifths with which the quartet began, and in the conclusion of the movement, modulate relaxedly back into the major tonality. The first violin becomes more spirited as it shepherds the quartet to its radiant ending.

©2019 Susan Halpern

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Quartet No. 4

Bartók, one of the most distinctive and original creative artists of the first half of the 20th century, devoted a significant amount of his energy to collecting and studying the peasant music of his native Hungary and to separating it from the gypsy music with which it had been so long confused. Once he had assembled the folk material, much of it gathered in collaboration with his fellow Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály, Bartók made extensive use of it in his works. He did not simply quote the folk melodies, but assimilated their musical language in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to know where the folk themes end and the original Bartók composition begins.

Quartet No. 4 dates from mid-1928 and was first performed in Budapest on March 20, 1929, by Bartók’s longtime collaborators, the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet. The work was published that year with a dedication to the Pro Arte Quartet.

The new patterns of sound and timbre that Bartók used in this quartet are unprecedented in the string quartet’s history. He expanded the palette of the quartet by utilizing techniques that had not been used this way before, e.g., with mutes in the fast movement, new pizzicato sounds, and the use of col legno, striking the string with the stick of the bow, rather than by drawing the hair of the bow across the strings. As time passed, he added new elements that he joined with the incorporation of folk music, but he also emulated the vigorous writing of the Baroque masters, Bach in particular, from whom he drew his knowledge of contrapuntal texture and his use of canonic and free imitation. He also learned formal schemes from the Classicists in which to cast his expressive ideas. His quartets are distinctive primarily for the new sonorities he created, for the rhythmic energy he brought forth in his fast movements, and for the absolute equality of all four voices in creating new and complex textures as in this quartet.

For this quartet, Bartók took one of the basic, elemental ways of ordering musical events, classical sonata form, and enlarged it and applied it not only to individual movements but also to the whole quartet. He gave this five-movement work a symmetrical (ABCBA) structure that theorists call an arch. W.W. Cobbett hypothesized that Hindemith’s Clarinet Quintet, written only five years before, may have influenced Bartók in his idiosyncratic use of sonata form since Hindemith’s work is also in five movements, with the last movement “an exact cancrizans repetition of the first.” Bartók created his work out of motivic cells, which lead into one another. The theoretician Cobbett acknowledges that Bartók does not use the principle of symmetry as strictly as Hindemith had, but says that Bartók intended the symmetrical structure to “serve as one of the main principles of harmonic and tonal as well as formal organization of the work.” In the intricate design of this quartet, the core middle movement is in ternary (ABA) form; its first few measures contain the germs of all the ideas used throughout the entire score.

This central slow movement is preceded and followed by scherzos (the B’s of the ABCBA), one of them completely pizzicato, which are related in thematic material; the first and last movements (the A’s) are extended, powerful Allegros, also related in thematic material. The corresponding movements do not use the identical musical ideas but similar ones, all derived in one way or another from the same source, and all newly set in such a way that the music is related but not repeated or recalled. The build-up of tensions in the first two movements and their release in the last two make the centripetally symmetrical whole incomparable in its expression and a marvel of musical architecture.

Quartet No. 4 begins with an Allegro movement that is an outgrowth of the Classical sonata idea; contrasting themes are presented, discussed, and restated in a new relationship. In it, counterpoint prevails. Dissonance occurs throughout. The results of Bartók’s folk research filter through the themes and their development. A cello motive follows the pattern of ascending and then descending pitches and becomes the governing kernel theme for this movement; it reappears in the fifth movement, binding the two outer movements.
 
The second movement is the first scherzo, Prestissimo, con sordino, a muted, nightmarish, buzzing movement, with slides and scratches as novel sonorities. The third movement, Non troppo lento, forms the keystone of the arch that is created by the whole. The cello solo with which it opens derives from the music made by an ancient wooden Hungarian instrument related to the oboe, the tárogató. The historical tárogató is a woodwind with a double reed used in Hungary from the 13th through the 18th centuries. In the 19th century, its modern form became a symbol of freedom. The tárogató music in this movement consists of elaborate improvised embellishments around a slow-moving melody. The cello recitative frames the nocturnal bird-songs at the center. Here again, the shaped elements of Hungarian folk music appear.

The second scherzo follows, Allegretto pizzicato, often with quite specific indications of how the strings are to be plucked to achieve many different colors and effects: for use in solid chords or in broken chords, strummed up or down, or pulled so hard that they snap back against the instruments’ fingerboards. Critics have called this the most striking single movement in all of Bartók’s music, an historical landmark in the evolution of instrumentation.

In the finale, Allegro molto, Bartók returns to the spirit of the Hungarian folk dance. He assimilates the style as well as the folk song, making the music dance and stomp with rough demeanor and artistic presentation simultaneously. This fifth movement is a mirror image of the first movement, except for its more intense Magyar spirit. Paul Griffiths, in his book on Bartók, suggests that the main theme of the last movement is related to the six-note idea of the first movement “by an expansion from segments of the chromatic scale to segments of diatonic ones.” The first movement’s motive returns, transformed into a vivacious Hungarian dance theme introduced by the two violins.

©2019 Susan Halpern

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, no. 1

Brahms’ views about the importance of the string quartet as the ultimate expression of the composer’s craft may help to account for why he may have written twenty or more quartets over two decades before he allowed his first two quartets to be published. The long delay had two causes. One was the burden of following Beethoven. The other was that Brahms sought a way to deal with the complex polyphony that was an inherent part of his musical thought; he had doubts whether his work could make the impression he wanted with only four instruments. The larger grouping of the sextet in the 1860s had given him a satisfactory medium, but he had trouble with a quintet. Finally, in the 1870s he felt, at last, that he knew what to do with only four players; his Op. 51 Quartets are works in which fullness of expression is not diminished by economy of means.

He completed Op. 51 in 1873 during his vacation in the countryside not far from Munich.  Musician-friends came from the city to visit and tried out the two quartets, as well as his Haydn Variations and several songs. When the summer was over, Brahms delivered the music to his publisher, and in September, Clara Schumann, his musical confidante and trusted friend, wrote him, “I am delighted that you are getting such a good fee for your quartets. Now be careful how you invest your money. It is better to have a low interest rate and safety [of capital].” The Hellmesberger Quartet gave the first public performance of this quartet in Vienna on December 11, 1873.

Perhaps Brahms’ greatest accomplishment is evident in this tightly organized work; he used a technique by which his complete composition could be generated from a single motive or group of motives. In this quartet and the other of the same opus, Brahms gives a clear and persuasive example of how he makes this idea work for him. The motives of the first movement pervade the whole quartet and the close tonal relationships and integrated key structure of the four movements add to the coherence of the whole.

The Quartet in C minor is a somber but passionate piece. Its Allegro first movement may have been derived from one of Brahms’s earlier discarded works. A bold arpeggio over a throbbing accompaniment sets the heroic tone for the movement. In the strict sonata form, each subsequent theme develops and expands logically from the last in Brahms’s familiar expressive language, complex and convoluted, with tense drama. The opening theme is referred to in all the later movements except the third. In the second movement it is transformed into the principal subject of a calm Romance, Poco adagio, a simple sounding three-part song of great beauty in the distant key of A-flat major.  The character of this movement belies its complex and highly organized structure.

The third movement, the usual place for the scherzo, is instead an Allegretto molto moderato e comodo. It may be interpreted as a gracious dance or as an uneasy, sinister, shadowy one. The main theme, in an unusual duple instead of the expected and traditional triple meter, derives from the middle section of the first theme of the first movement. The contrasting central trio section, Un poco più animato is made up of a folk-like tune in Ländler style, imitating an Austrian peasant dance, colorfully accompanied by unusual sounds from the open strings of the second violin and viola. In the energetic Allegro finale, Brahms refers again to the third movement, but the musical materials are most closely related to a section of the first movement’s main theme, which he uses as a recurring motif. The movement is presented with a concentrated force that recalls and balances the opening movement.

©2019 Susan Halpern