Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Jasper Quartet, Stuart Malina and Shostakovich's Piano Quintet

Saturday – the official Last Day of Summer – marks the beginning of Market Square Concerts' new season with the Jasper String Quartet and pianist Stuart Malina, at Market Square Church on Saturday, September 21st at 8pm.

You can read Ellen Hughes' “Art & Soul” column from the Patriot-News here.

The Jasper Quartet – based in New Haven but founded at Oberlin's school of music, starting their professional career in 2006 – are the 2012 winners of the Chamber Music of America's prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award.

In addition to one of Haydn's last quartets - the D Major, Op. 76 No. 5 - they'll also play one of the later string quartets by Antonin Dvorák that's not the famous “American” Quartet but which deserves to be heard more often. The “American” is No. 12, Op. 96, but the Jasper Quartet will be playing No. 13, Op. 106 in G Major, written shortly after he returned from his stay in the United States in 1895.

This post is a close-up of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which concludes the program. Stuart Malina, music director and conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, joins them for this performance.

There are basically four great piano quintets in the modern repertoire. The first of these chronologically would be the one by Robert Schumann, followed by the one by his protege, Johannes Brahms which itself is then followed by the only published one by his protege, Antonin Dvořák. And then, there's the one by Dmitri Shostakovich. Others might add the one by Cesar Franck but, frankly, I have only ever heard this one live once, and the others come around sometimes with too much frequency, as if no one else has ever written a quintet for piano and string quartet.

Dmitri Shostakovich
For this concert, it is Shostakovich's turn.

It's a work in five movements – at many of the initial performances, the third and fifth movements were encored, giving rise to the quip “the quintet is a work in five movements of which there are seven.” It opens with a grand flourish in the piano which is eventually answered by the strings' entrance. If the opening proceeds like a Bach prelude, keep in mind the first two movements are, in fact, labeled “Prelude & Fugue.” In that sense, I often think of this as a single opening movement which happens to be in two parts: one does not make sense without the other.

Here is a performance of the opening with Glenn Gould at the piano with four unfortunately uncredited string players (so far as I could find). Gould, of course, is perhaps best known for his rather idiosyncratic performances of Bach (especially the Goldberg Variations), and he finds a much more lyrical approach to this opening than most other pianists.

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(A little later, I'll include a video of the complete quintet with Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet so you can also get a more unified sweep of the piece in one of the finest performances available. Then, in an accompanying post on my blog, Thoughts on a Train, I'll include clips of the individual movements from the 1949 recording the composer himself made with the Beethoven Quartet for whom he'd originally composed it.)

The next movement is called a Scherzo (pronounced skair'-tzoh) which is Italian for “joke.” Beethoven had begun using the term to replace the more stately minuet of his teacher's generation with something a little more down-to-earth. In either case, these third movements were intended to be light-hearted. But frequently they became more dramatic, even demonic (Brahms' C Minor Piano Quartet's scherzo is hardly light) and with Shostakovich, very often his scherzos can be cynical and violent.

In this performance, pianist Martha Argerich, violinists Joshua Bell and Henning Kraggerud, violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Misha Maisky play the Scherzo as an encore:

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It will be interesting to compare this tempo and overall energy of this interpretation not only with what you'll hear with Stuart Malina and the Jasper Quartet, but also with the Richter recording and the composer's own interpretation from 1949 (see the conclusion of this additional post). Sometimes, listeners might be bowled over by the speed and intensity of a performance and find anything slower “staid and dull” by comparison. Of course, ask any artist about playing something “faster and louder” to obtain a desired effect...

By contrast, the Intermezzo is understated, a return to the seriousness (if not the somberness) of the fugue.

Ask most Americans about Russian music and they will find its common denominator being untold sadness. I once asked a well-known Soviet ethno-sociologist who was visiting the University of Connecticut where I was then teaching a course in Russian Music, “why does Russian music sound so sad?” She replied as if she'd never thought about it before: “I don't know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Here's a clip of Shostakovich at the piano with the Borodin Quartet, recorded in 1949:

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After all this – and keeping in mind the expectations of a finale following the triumphal march we usually associate with the 5th Symphony and the “flippant hilarity” of the 6th's finale – this finale is at times light-hearted but not vulgar, often more wistful than sad and the ending is almost like a movie's final scene where the characters walk slowly into the sunset as the light fades.

For this, I'd like to return to Glenn Gould's performance:

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After the intense symphonies Shostakovich would later compose and the complexities of his personality, not to mention the complexity of his personal situation as an artistic spokesman to the world for official Soviet art, and especially after the still controversial posthumous memoir published as Testimony by Semyon Volkov (largely discredited but frequently discussed and difficult to dismiss), it is always tempting to go back to his music to look for “hidden programs.”

What a composer “thinks” while he is composing can only be proven if, somewhere, he writes or has said “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this music.”

Beethoven might tell us, in order to understand the mysterious opening of the D Minor Piano Sonata, “read Shakespeare's Tempest” (which is why it's called the Tempest Sonata), but he also was watching a rider go galloping past on a horse and then turned to improvise the last movement of the same sonata (we know this because one of his students was there to witness this: the sonata could also be called “The Rider Sonata”).

But because Beethoven never said anything about moonlit nights pertaining to his C-sharp Minor Sonata, we cannot say “Beethoven was thinking of moonlight when he wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata” – the kind of “sounds-like” thinking we often use to explain the inexplicable that could lead to the last movement giving it the nickname “The Thunderstorm Sonata.”

So we don't know what Shostakovich “meant” by this finale. One writer hears a “kindly babushka” (the quintessential Russian grandmother) consoling us that everything will be alright in the opening theme. The second theme, we are told, with its little fanfares and sprightly melody, is actually an inversion of a traditional fanfare used to introduce the clown acts into the Russian circus (and please let's not call it the Send in the Clowns Quintet...).

One thing that came to mind while listening to Stuart Malina playing it with the Enso Quartet in a past performance with Market Square Concerts, was a film image.

This would not be too far-fetched, as conjectures go, since Shostakovich earned money as a pianist for the silent films in Leningrad movie theaters when he was a child. One of his favorite actors, he'd said, was Charlie Chaplin. So instead of Babushkas (but maybe clowns), this music brings to mind the inspiration of Chaplin's “Little Tramp.”

It would not be a big leap from here to a discussion on Shostakovich and the traditional Russian view of the “Village Idiot,” the urodivi or simpleton which is better translated as the “Holy Fool.” The most famous example of this to a Western audience is the character in Mussorgsky's historic opera, Boris Godunov where (if you end with the Revolution Scene and not Boris' death) it is the Holy Fool who is left lamenting the fate of the Russian People.

Boris Godunov & the Holy Fool
Earlier in the opera, in a scene frequently cut from Western productions for some reason, there is a confrontation between the Simpleton and the all-powerful Tsar (who reportedly had had the rightful heir to the throne murdered so he could ascend the throne). After the children had stolen his last penny, the Simpleton asks Boris to punish the children, to kill them – like he did the Tsaryevich (the rightful heir). But Boris stops his soldiers from arresting the fool – instead, he asks the fool to pray for him. Russians believed that such people were closer to God and could intercede for them and therefore were given more leeway than ordinary people might be granted.

Oh, I should mention that, in 1939, between completing the 6th Symphony and beginning work on his Piano Quintet, Shostakovich did his own re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

But that's a possible influence and a coincidence of timing that is purely conjecture to tie it into the Quintet's finale.

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Here is a complete performance of the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich with pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet recorded live in 1983 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory:

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Again, you can read a continuation of this post, more detail about the historical background to the Piano Quintet, including several quotes from first-hand sources about Shostakovich's performances of the piece, at my blog Thoughts on a Train, here.

– Dick Strawser

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