Composers who don’t hesitate to pepper symphony manuscripts with fortissimos and unleash tympani and even organs during the finales somehow start to pump the brakes when it’s time to write string quartets. There’s something about the pure form that seems to make even the most witty and confident composers get serious.
And when the Jerusalem Quartet dives into its Tuesday Evening Concert Series program next week in the University of Virginia’s Cabell Hall Auditorium, the musicians will explore how three different major composers approached the quartet form — and reveal the connections that emerge between and among their works. Part of the genius comes down to the math under all the music.
“The maximum number of independent voices coming into a whole is four,” said Ori Kam, violist for the Jerusalem Quartet. “There’s a four-voice fugue, but there isn’t a five-voice fugue.
“There’s something so perfect about the union of these four instruments. The intention is to create the perfect piece.”
Kam will team up with violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov to perform W.A. Mozart’s “Quartet in B-flat Major, K 458 (‘The Hunt’),” Leos Janacek’s “Quartet No. 1 (‘The Kreutzer Sonata’)” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Quartet in F Major, Op. 135.”
The challenge of writing string quartets can draw new levels of achievement from even the most respected composers. “Look at someone like [Sergei] Prokofiev, or somebody like Mozart,” Kam said. “Mozart had this tremendous understanding of form and structure,” he said, but when it comes to Mozart’s string quartets, “they’re so well constructed they’re almost a different category.”
The three works tie into each other in ways that’ll surprise and delight the listeners. “It is connected; one composer hands off the genre to another one,” Kam said.
One example, a literary reference, hits an extra note of serendipity on the eve of the Virginia Festival of the Book, which begins Wednesday.
A famous Leo Tolstoy novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” traces the tragic consequences of a disturbed man’s descent into toxic jealousy after hearing his pianist wife perform the “Kreutzer Sonata,” Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano, Op. 47,” with a male violinist he imagines to be her partner in adultery.
Tolstoy fans in Tuesday’s audience will want to remember that the Kreutzer Sonata on this program is Janacek’s, not Beethoven’s. Keep an ear out for the innocent heroine’s voice in an early exchange between a violin and the cello.
There’s no need to be an expert in Russian literature or Czech composers to find a satisfying musical evening, however.
“If you’ve never been to a string quartet concert before, you’ll get a lot out of it,” Kam said. “If you’ve written your third Ph.D on Beethoven quartets, you’ll get some new insights. You’ll get something out of it, no matter what your experience is.”
And for Kam, that’s part of the magic of the power of four.
When a string quartet performs, “it’s really stripped down,” Kam said. “There’s not a lot of bells and whistles. There’s not much on stage; it’s pretty bare. Just the four of us.
“It’s really the power of music to connect us to our own experiences. It really is about the music. It’s like entering a white room with a really great masterpiece in it. We almost cautiously get out of the way and let the music speak for itself.”
The last time the Jerusalem Quartet performed for the Tuesday Evening Concert Series, spring wasn’t in the air. Snow was. Reaching Charlottesville in time for the Feb. 17, 2015, concert required the musicians to make their way through a massive snowstorm that had snarled traffic not only in Virginia, but also across the Northeast and Midwest.
It meant spending two nights in airports, as theirs were among thousands of flights canceled in the snowstorm’s path, but the musicians arrived in time for the show in Old Cabell Hall to go on.