Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Pacifica & Three Shostakovich Quartets (Part 1)

The Pacifica Quartet
Who: The Pacifica String Quartet
What: playing three quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich
When: Sunday at 4:00 (with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk at 3:15)
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg (parking in the Market Square Garage on 2nd Street above Chestnut & the Harrisburg Hospital)
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The Pacifica Quartet, formed in 1994, is celebrating 25 seasons of music-making this year. When I first heard them in the late '90s, I had high hopes for this exciting new young group – not only were they very good in the “standard repertoire,” they also championed composers like Elliott Carter (one of my favorites). In fact, they played Carter's 1st Quartet at their first appearance here, years ago; and the last time I'd seen them live, they were playing all five Carter quartets for the composer just before his 100th birthday! It's not that they are “Modern Music Specialists,” because anything they play is an experience, not just another performance, whether it's hearing their complete Beethoven Cycle or listening to their recordings of the complete Shostakovich Cycle.

And here they are, back again with a concert Peter Sirotin put together with them of three of his favorite Shostakovich quartets.

Now, if you go to chamber music concerts long enough, you will probably hear a few of the Great Quartets of the Day, those legendary names spoken with a sense of awe by us old-timers, and a number of Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who appear and, all too frequently, disappear with great regularity. So, by the time the Great Quartets decide to hang up their bows, some of those Young Up-and-Coming Quartets have been around long enough to be well on their way to becoming the Great Quartets of the Future. At the same time, we continue to experience a number of newer Young Up-and-Coming Quartets who may, with any luck, somewhere down the line become the Great Quartets to the Next Generation.

It's the Classical Music “Cycle of Life.”

Here's a 2018 performance of the quartet playing one of Beethoven's catchier scherzos, from his Op. 18, No. 6:

Speaking of "Cycle of Life," here's another example: years ago, I attended an “out-reach” event presented by Odin Rathnam, former concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony and a founder of the chamber orchestra Concertante, which featured a young high-school-aged quartet he'd been coaching. In order to reach a lot of not-your-usual-concert-goers, it was held in Strawberry Square, right in front of the noisiest clock in the world. And lots of people heard them, stopped, and paid attention. They were playing one of the Biggest Adult Quartets in the repertoire, the G Major Quartet of Franz Schubert, an intensely mature work for so young a composer. But what was amazing to me was, these students couldn't possibly have learned to play it with that same kind of intense maturity simply from hearing a recording. That level of interpretation is the sort of insight quartets twice their age – even more – would be lucky to have.

The first violinist of this quartet was a young guy named Austin Hartman who grew up in Lancaster, close enough to Harrisburg to be considered a “home-town boy.” Later, I heard he had gone on to college where he founded his own quartet, the Biava Quartet.

Today, he is the second violinist of the Pacifica Quartet.

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Shostakovich, who achieved fame as a teen-ager with his 1st Symphony, wrote 15 string quartets during his life, one less than Beethoven. But unlike Beethoven, Shostakovich's quartets do not span his entire career; nor are they as easily subdivided into groups labeled “early,” “middle,” and “late.” To talk about his “early quartets,” looking at the numbers, is not the same as talking about Beethoven's Early Quartets, the Op. 18 set.

Given the three quartets the Pacifica will be playing on this program, I'm going to discuss them in chronological order, giving you samples from the Pacifica's recordings on the Çedille label, courtesy of the ubiquitous YouTube, and then, in the next post, go into more historical background for each of them to prepare you for a different way of approaching these works and the times in the composer's life they were written.

As a sample, here's the last movement of the very first string quartet Shostakovich published: while it might make you think “early/young,” it's a mature work, started in May of 1938 when he was 31. Shostakovich admitted he had not consciously thought of writing a quartet when he sat down to start a kind of theory exercise or “composer's etude,” a bit like other people sitting down to do a crossword puzzle. (Quite different from the preparation and anguish Beethoven, who was himself almost 30 when he released his first quartets, was going through, given the sound of his teacher Haydn marching on behind him.)

But Shostakovich liked how it evolved and by mid-July, it was finished. Thinking people would compare its four brief movements to his recent 5th Symphony (see next post), he wrote “Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.”

While the history of the quartet, overshadowed by the likes of Beethoven, may be far removed from this rather slight work, it is not a “young composer trying to figure out how to write a string quartet in the shadow of Beethoven.” If anything, it's a maturing composer who's figured out how to write a string quartet despite Beethoven, and still, in this last movement, have a great deal of fun with a folksy tune which he turns into – gasp! – a fugue! Not a Great One, admittedly, but fugal nonetheless.

The 2nd and 3rd Quartets are Shostakovich's longest quartets out of the 15, the 2nd written during the summer of 1944, and the 3rd two years later. The 3rd, perhaps his most "symphonic" quartet in scope, is in five movements but not the symmetrical arch-form that Bartók used. He initially described it as a “War Quartet,” following on the heels of his two epic “War Symphonies,” the 7th and 8th and what the public was anticipating in his soon-to-be-announced 9th (see next post). In fact, he originally inscribed the movements with subtitles – "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"; "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; "The forces of war are unleashed"; "Homage to the dead"; and "The eternal question: why and to what purpose?" – before he decided these were perhaps inadequate for the music and, without further explanation, withdrew them. While the work opens with an almost pastoral innocence, the tension and introspection builds through the middle movements until the climactic Passacaglia of the 4th Movement – a favorite form of Shostakovich's where he can build the intensity through the theme's constant repetitions – and then breaks into a last movement that ends with 'mysterious transformation into eternal light and conciliation.'

Later, the composer wrote, “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.”

This is the final movement of Shostakovich's 3rd Quartet from the Pacifica's recording, released in 2014:

Shostakovich would later consider this one of his greatest works. Years after the premiere, a member of the Beethoven Quartet (the Russian ensemble who played the premieres of most of Shostakovich's quartets), wrote:
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“Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He'd promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, 'Keep playing!' So we performed the whole quartet. When we finished playing he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenseless.”
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The 7th Quartet – which opens the concert – is the shortest of the 15 and is in only three interconnected movements. Written in 1960, it ostensibly began as a memorial tribute to his wife, Nina, an unexpected event that deeply affected him (see the next post). Full of contradictory moods, and remote from any idea of a mournful eulogy, the first movement is “primarily perky, agitated, but full of impish humor; the second dream-like; while the third, although at first violent – “we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog” – finally relapses into mellow contemplation.”

But if you listen to this music, there is clearly something else going on behind it. But what? Unless the composer specifically said "this means that and I was thinking of this when I wrote it," we really only have our own subjective reactions to it - and the events of the composer's life. Do they explain the music? Or is he composing against the events, a way of escaping the reality? Or is there some secret that becomes a cathartic release for him but which we, as mere listeners, do not need (and sometimes are not allowed) to know?

In the next post, Shostakovich: the Life Behind Three Quartets, you can hear complete performances of each quartet by the legendary Borodin Quartet who had worked with the composer on most of his quartets throughout his career, plus some biographical information about the composer at the time he was writing them which will give you some context for the reality behind this music.

- Dick Strawser

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(photo credit for Pacifica Quartet photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

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