August 2005

2005 Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival
The Borodin String Quartet — Shostakovich’s String Quartets (part 2 of 2)
by Stanley Fefferman
The three quartets, numbers 7–9, performed in this concert are each dedicated to one of Shostakovich’s wives. String Quartet No.9 in E flat major, Op.117, written in the summer of 1964 is dedicated to the composer’s third wife. The first two of the five linked movements are slow and reflective, but contain a phrase similar to the famous bars of the William Tell Overture that bring the piece to a headlong gallop of high-powered dynamics in the scherzo and finale. This uncharacteristically graphic passage from Philip Taylor’s liner notes to the recording of the original Borodin’s performances is worth quoting: “…the music erupts with an angry outburst that subsides to the wild accompaniment of trills, tremolandi, glissandi and loud resonant pizzicati. The finale…gives the impression of uncontrolled chaos: duple time is set off against triple time, the violins rush about in complete disarray whelping and squealing in their despair. In the background the cello grunts and rasps, its gruff interjections sounding random and willful.”

String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108, completed in 1960 is dedicated to the composer’s first wife who’d died six years earlier. It opens with the combined voices of viola and cello sounding the notes of the composer’s personal four note motto theme which is repeated trippingly pizzicato several times before moving into the subdued atmosphere of the first two movements. The cello drones, creating a gloomy atmosphere; the viola marks the passing of time; the violins slide over these lower-register tones doubtingly, calling in a feverish way, till the horn-like sound of the viola calls the ensemble back to a slow, questioning end.

String Quartet No. 8 in C minor Op. 110 (1960) is rumored to include reflections on a suicide attempt that was thwarted by the composer’s second wife. Launched quietly by a cello solo, the opening movements contain a transfixingly lovely melody magically modulated by the Borodins into a hectic ensemble performance of a dissonant Gypsy dance theme that is repeated throughout the five linked movements. This quartet, which has always been the best known of the Shostakovich string quartets, comes to a close on a heavenly air that announces the coming of peace. The final notes are finely drawn towards a vanishing point and the silence that ensues is allowed to rest for a long time until the Borodin’s relax and thunderous applause breaks out.

Igor Naidin
String Quartet No.10 in A flat major, Op 118 begins with a sweet Andante answered by a scherzo (Allegretto furioso) that lurches percussively into motion with the fury of a runaway locomotive, the first and second violins scraping harsh, sardonic phrases that abrade the mind. Then follows a passacaglia (Adagio), firmly bowed, bittersweet and reflective. The highlight is the cello solo, long and with a sprightly bounce, that nonetheless is underlined with an ironic twist that fades away.

The seven linked movements of the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966) form a suite that begins in the rich swellings of the cello’s theme. This moves tentatively into a scale repeated by each of the other instruments before subsiding into a monotonous drone as the viola’s voice brings the melody to a close. The scherzo that follows is harsh and abrasive, softened by the Adagio third movement with its dark cello solo vying with a high pulsing first violin and a viola pizzicato scale.

The String Quartet No.12 in D flat major, Op. 133 been described as Beethovenian in that it “returns to the ideal of reconciling the irreconcilable and forging a path towards an heroic conclusion.”

The themes are simple and repeated with great frequency giving the piece a definite sense of structure that makes the contrasts dramatic. Ethereal, spacy waltzes float beside cello scales pulsing pizzicato. In the Allegretto, flighty cello and viola themes seem to argue with talkative, argumentative first and second violin passages. The long second movement, three times as long as the first, contains three exchanges between cello and viola which is terminated by a high, harsh pizzicato passage of the first violin, as if the voice of time is calling for an end to conflict and an invitating the final concerted burst of excited energy.

The Borodin’s final concert at the 12th Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival came to a close in candlelight. Four empty music stands each support two tall white candles flickering on the bare stage of the darkened hall. The members of the Quartet enter carrying their sheet music.

The six movement String Quartet No. 15 in E flat major, Op. 144 begins with an adagio “Elegy” initiated by a short phrase from Abramenkov’s 2nd violin, followed incrementally by the voices of Aharonian’s violin, Berlinsky’s cello, and Naidin’s viola. The lament is slow and deep, like peaceful breathing. The tempo is stately, with clear single notes moving like silver threads on a tapestry of pipe organ chords.

This quartet, with all it’s movements adagio, is marked by the illness that haunted the last two years of the composer’s life. Its meditative nature is delineated by stripped-bare lines recalling Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Only occasionally does a rush of notes enliven the ascetic, funereal pace before subsiding into the prevailing mantric drone of cello and chant of string.

The musicians had requested there be no applause at the end of the performance, and they were allowed to walk off while the audience enjoyed the silence they’d left in their wake. But the urge to applaud broke out, and the musicians returned for many ovations, flowers, and in return offered a soothing encore.

The F sharp 14th and B flat minor 13th which preceded the finale were equally stark musically, and emotionally somber. Despite this burden, the music’s ability to carry the composer’s pain into our hearts also opened to us Shostakovich’s feeling of the sacredness of life, — an is-ness that cradles our transience, the profound silence out of which all sound arises.

We welcome your comments and feedback
• • • • • •
Stanley Fefferman
• •
for The Live Music Report

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