Jerusalem String Quartet

Bramsinho Jerusaleminho Blues

My (new) countrymen, like all provincial folk, aren’t terribly au current, meaning that they pack the concert hall for performances of artists past their prime; and leave deliciously empty the up-and-comers’, over whom the 1st world presently fawns (and fights). And thus, last year’s Sokolov was full (and reviewed in the usual grateful/submissive/worshipful manner of the Hadrianopolinos and Lugudunenses); while this years’ Jerusalem Quartet played to a nearly empty hall.

For which, of course, many thanks. Would you not, too, prefer to hear your favorite living string quartet performing for you alone?  I wish the other four people had not bothered to come.

The Jerusalemites played usually well. It wasn’t perhaps their best concert to-date, but the andante of Mozart’s No. 4 was extraordinarily beautiful and moved me to clap my hands and shout praise between movements, which shocked the ueber-correct old lady to my right and woke, with an unpleasant start, the half-dead gent on my left. As is usual with the Young Boys from the Old City (though, in fairness, let us not put too much emphasis on the young, please, at 25 Pergolesi was dead), the sound was delicious. Perhaps it was where I sat what did it, but the viola seemed especially fulsome. (As it always does).

Alas, ¾ of the concert was taken up by… Brahms. What is it about Brahms? Watching The Boys, I could see they liked the technical challenge – the sudden stops (“it ain’t the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop”), the crescendi and diminuendi, the whole go-carts/technical aspect of Brahms, but if they liked the music itself, well, they are more man than I know how to be. To me, Brahms seems perfectly and totally and completely impenetrable: his tunes bore me to death; the need to belabor them in variation escapes me; and the way they are belabored is simply inscrutable; not only do I not know the minute a piece ends how we ever got to where we got, I usually do not know it while the piece is still in progress. It all, kind of, somehow, faints into the wall-paper.

Invariably, when hearing a piece of Brahms, I wonder: if you took a piece of Brahms into your hands, and compressed it really hard into a very, very dense, tight ball (would it even be possible?) and then threw it, like some champion pitcher, at 90 mph or so, against a wall two meters away, would it… stick? (Mrs Sei says, thinking Brahms is mud-like, yes, I say, thinking Brahms is… cotton-like, no).

Honestly, Brahms has got to be worse than Tchaikovsky. I mean, the Tchaikovsky is at least so bad that it is funny, while Brahms… Brahms on the other hand seems… not to exist. For thirty minutes at a time. What kept the man composing? And why hadn’t someone stopped him.  Brahms, at least, seems to have had the right measure of himself: some music, he said, is so beautiful, that it ought never to be played. He meant, no doubt, absolutely every single thing he ever wrote.

When I made this observation to my Portuguese musician-composer acquaintance, he gave me a wan, knowing smile: he appreciated my wit, but didn’t appreciate my judgment. Incredibly, it turns out, he liked Brahms. Incredibly, perhaps the Portuguese generally do: perhaps this is why everyone coming here ends up playing Brahms. Perhaps they are told to at the time of contract.  Perhaps — an incredible thought — Brahms is a Portuguese-kind of composer? Would that explain something about Portugal?  No… Impossible.  There isn’t any content to Brahms.  How could that explain anything?

(Or — could it?)

After the concert, I rushed back home to wash my ears and did so with the first thing that fell into my hands, and it turned out a damn good thing: an Aban Berg recording of Ravel’s string quartet. And, boy, was that incredibly good music, and easy to follow, and, boy, was it played well, incredibly well, unexpectedly, surprisingly, wisely, insightfully, like no one has ever played before it, especially the third movement seemed to place the whole work in a whole new light. The Aban Berg had looked into a hundred year old piece and saw in it something no one has ever seen. And, good god, good god, is it exciting, is it amazing, is it good.


Incidentally, if you ever hear Ravel play his own music, don’t laugh. It’s that bad. Saying “god-awful” don’t begin to describe it. Which makes you wonder: did Ravel understand his own work? Did he understand what he had wrought?

And more: does anyone, ever?

There is, after all, that famous story told by Borodin’s second violin about Shostakovich suddenly marching out of a rehearsal of his String Quartet No. 8, overcome with emotion: until he heard them play it, he may simply not have suspected what he had wrought.

What he had wrought.