Ensemble names of course tell only part of a story. The four members of the Jerusalem Quartet were all born elsewhere. Three grew up in the former Soviet Union, their musical sensibilities first stamped by that culture, and later shaped through advanced studies in Israel, where they met at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance. And so, when this ensemble plays Shostakovich’s sting quartets for instance, we do not hear the sound of Middle Easterners sight-seeing in a distant land, but rather a group of string players visiting one of their multiple musical homes.
That sense of relaxed familiarity informed the Jerusalem Quartet’s traversal of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 12 on Saturday night in Jordan Hall as part of their local debut presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. The work itself represents something of a departure from the composer’s earlier quartets in that it opens with the cello’s forthright statement of a 12-tone row. But, completed in 1968, the Twelfth Quartet hardly signals a wholesale stylistic conversion late in life; Shostakovich integrates his rows into a more characteristically tonal stew. Still, the presence of the rows point the work more firmly toward the bleaker territory of his final three quartets.
On Saturday the Jerusalem Quartet gave this piece a fluid reading, full of nicely honed and idiomatic gestures, from razor sharp pizzicati to electric trills. These works can sometimes draw performances of more raw and visceral immediacy, accounts that make them feel like representatives of the composer’s own suis generis strain of Russian expressionism. Instead, the Jerusalem Quartet took a slightly cooler and more distanced approach, one that emphasized the music’s equally valid links to the grand classical string quartet tradition reaching back to Haydn and Mozart.
And the ear was already poised to hear the work in this vein because the evening opened with Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet (Op. 76, No. 4). Long stretches of immaculate ensemble work and a general flair of execution wedding elegance and wit made this Haydn, for me, the most compellingly realized offering on the program.
After intermission, the group’s take on Brahms’s A-minor Quartet offered ample pleasures but was also slower to click in, with the first movement lacking a final measure of tonal integration even before first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky broke a string. The group recovered well and offered as an encore Shostakovich’s arrangement of the polka from his ballet “The Golden Age,” here brimming at once with charm and that mordant humor that is so recognizably Shostakovich’s alone.