Bartók’s quartets are often played ‘brutal, fast and loud’, but they should be approached as Classical masterpieces, says Jerusalem Quartet first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky
I recently interviewed Alexander Pavlovsky, first violinist of the Jerusalem Quartet, for the programme notes of the group’s next London concert. The players are performing Haydn’s Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1, Bartók no.6 and Dvořák’s ‘American’ and Pavlovsky gave me plenty of insight about the works. I couldn’t fit it all in, so here are some of his comments about Bartók and Dvořák, as well as more general comments about the problems of growing up as a musician, and some key advice that can help anyone who plays an instrument.
Bartók as Classical music
‘You have to treat this music within the conception of Classical music and to concentrate on a clear Classical sound. Everything is so well written, with many different strokes and colours indicated. It makes more sense to listeners if you keep it Classical and without too much brutality. Some recordings are very exciting, but you don’t understand what’s going on. For example, when some people play the Fourth Quartet it sounds crazy and you hear that it’s “very Modern”. But it’s such simple sonata form, and there are melodies and Classical canons that could have been written by Haydn. When you exaggerate, making it brutal, fast and loud, you miss a lot of delicate and interesting things, and you ruin the conception of the form of the music. To bring out the sound qualities and all the articulations, you have to do it from a Classical standpoint.
‘When we play Bartók we talk a lot about the articulations. There are many dots and accents, including vertical accents, which are the most hard-sounding. All these different kinds and levels of articulations must be clear – for us and for the audience. In the Western Classical approach, if you don’t have any information from the composer that you have to play an accent or make notes sound unconnected, you have to treat it as if it’s a theme, otherwise you can’t bring out all the different levels – they can’t be heard. If you think, “It’s Modern so let’s bring out every line and every accent,” you miss all of this. You have to treat Bartók as you do Mozart or Haydn. Bringing out the articulations clearly also makes it sound like folk music. Like Beethoven, Bartók has many layers – you can always go deeper. You always find new colours, and harmony that surprises you. That’s why we do this. If we did it exactly the same every time it would be boring.’
Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet
‘Dvořák makes it simple in this work. There aren’t many contrasts and there is a lot of ostinato. For example, the slow movement has the beautiful first violin melody, based on the pentatonic scale, but look at what happens in the other parts underneath: it is the same from the first bar to the last. We all know that Dvořák could write more complicated and interesting things, but he doesn’t. The viola and second violin play the same music for eight minutes. But you must not sound the same: you must follow the melody, the tensions and the harmony.’
Growing up musically
‘We had a wonderful teacher at the beginning, who gave us a very good base. Many things were on an intuitive level, and that’s very important. Sometimes you can’t even explain things, but you say, “I feel this is wrong or right.” Most of the time you’re right. You can feel the tension and release of music by intuition – you don’t need a doctorate. It helps when you can analyse the form and harmony – it gives you a shortcut, but it’s also takes away some of the naturalness.
‘The difficulty is that with time you have much more knowledge from different directions, from listening to other people, working with great players and orchestras, as well as playing together on stage. You get more information and you have to deal with it. We were 22 when we first played Bartók no.6 and we had fewer questions. I’m not saying it was wrong – it was different. At that age you have passion and endless energy and fewer questions for yourself, because life is easy. Today you know life, the profession and your instrument better, but you have a thousand times more questions. Unless you find a good answer for these questions you can’t be peaceful. They are always on your mind. At the same time you also have much less time to answer them, because you are learning so many new pieces to play for a season. We were given some good advice, that the stage between ages 30 and 40 is a very interesting transition, but it’s also very dangerous. Many musicians and ensembles stop playing and disappear.’
It’s not all about you
‘After 20 years you realise that simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve, and it has a strong message. The hardest thing is to do what is written. You just have to help the music – you don’t have to try to do it well. Just let it speak. Find the composer’s message and communicate it to the public. It’s not about us – it’s about the composer.’
‘My answer to everyone who wants to deal with this occupation is to learn to listen better – to yourself and to your colleagues. We give many masterclasses around the world. Some groups are amazing, some are not and some are average. Most of the time they lack this quality of careful listening. That doesn’t mean that my colleagues don’t say to me, “Listen, Sasha!” We say this all the time. It’s also connected to the fact that one always wants to be right, but one can’t be. There are always different angles and views on things. It’s good to be polite and to accept things. Just listen. Sometimes we think we are listening, but we are not. It’s an excellent life skill – to listen to yourself and to your partners.’
Photo: Felix Broede