Time stops just before the music begins. A string quartet is preparing itself for takeoff. Four individuals sit perfectly still, bows pressed against strings. Their eyes glitter as glances are exchanged. Silence is the flint from which sparks of music are summoned. The players, who hail from Ukraine, Belarus, and California, cohere with rare integrity by listening raptly to one another. This enables them to attain their oft-stated goal, which is to sound like one sixteen-stringed instrument.
The Jerusalem Quartet has been in existence for twenty years and will make its fifth UMS appearance on April 8 at Rackham Auditorium, performing music by Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartok. The concert will open with Beethoven’s Second Quartet, written at the very close of the eighteenth century when the young composer was studying with Haydn. Congenial and good-natured, it could easily be mistaken for one of Haydn’s own, especially in the humorous currents that enliven the scherzo. Beethoven himself described its closing allegro as “unbuttoned.”
Robert Schumann once defined the string quartet as a beautiful if somewhat strangely convoluted conversation, which is an excellent description of his Third Quartet (1842), a profoundly personal opus, rich in romantic sentiment and rife with emotional turbulence. Its second movement, an ingeniously constructed set of variations on an amorous theme, morphs into agitated gyrations of terrific vehemence, like the stamping cathartic scherzo of his Fourth Symphony.
Bartok’s Fourth Quartet, which dates from 1928, is thrillingly strange, with four bristly movements flanking a slow central region shrouded in a mysterious nocturnal fog. Legend has it that when hypermodern composer Anton Webern heard the work, he admitted it was “too cacophonous” for him. Webern, who was no stranger to abrupt and dissonant contrasts, was responding to what can feel at times like a violent harmonic mash-up, or an exhilarating adventure, or both.
What makes this particular quartet (and much of Bartok’s music) so vibrant and exciting is its blend of mathematically organized abstraction and textured irregular rhythms derived from Central European folk music. This deliciously disorienting piece of work conjures cold raindrops on wooden shingles, the drone of Carpathian Mountain bagpipes, and the buzzing of honeybees hovering near the hive.