After its relatively modest beginning two months ago, Quatuor Danel's cycle of string quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczysław Weinberg continued this evening with a much more substantial programme of such pieces as emerged near the end of and following the 'Great Patriotic War'.
The last in a sequence of large-scale chamber works, Shostakovich’s Second Quartet (1944) has tended to be overshadowed by his Piano Quintet and Second Piano Trio, but that it does not want for stature was underlined by the reading here. The charged (if formally lop-sided) 'Overture' responded audibly to this trenchant and forthright approach, its modally inflected plangency carried through to the 'Recitative and Romance’ in which Marc Danel's impulsive take on those florid first violin solos was ably complemented by the fraught interplay toward its climax. Nor was there any lack of purpose in the 'Waltz', with its fugitive revisiting of the composer’s past, before the closing 'Theme with Variations' evinced inexorable momentum on the way to that implacable restatement of its theme in a warning pure while hardly simple.
Although not on the same scale, Weinberg’s contemporaneous Third Quartet yields little in terms of overarching emotional intensity. The Danel Quartet was mindful to observe those attacca markings as give the overall design its unity within diversity, so that the unchecked energy of the initial Presto seemed by no means offset by the bittersweet poise of the Andante which follows; its taciturn unease duly continued in a final Allegretto as affords only the most tenuous of closure. Arguably too provisional, even in so insightful a reading as this. One reason, surely, the composer restructured the piece when recasting it more than three decades later as his Second Chamber Symphony; which is not to deny the fascination of this music as a crucial stage on route to Weinberg’s mastery of the medium.
A mastery as Shostakovich achieved with his own Third Quartet (1946), its five movements fusing the formal and expressive possibilities of his wartime Eighth and Ninth Symphonies such that the opening movement proceeds almost as a revisiting of that from the latter piece. The players had the measure of its occasional playful capriciousness, before bringing out the ominous unease of the intermezzo then the headlong aggression of the scherzo which follow. Shostakovich’s first recourse to a passacaglia in his quartets, the slow movement exuded due eloquence and if this ensemble felt marginally too rapid in its approach to the searing climax of the finale, the dissipation of accumulated tension was masterfully effected through to the numbed fatalism of the closing bars – as if Shostakovich were bowing before the inevitable.
Whether or not an encore was desirable (or even necessary) after almost 90 minutes of such intensity, the players came up with an ideal one in the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet – its ineffable cello melody touchingly rendered by Yovan Markovitch such as Tolstoy's famed response was not hard to understand. It certainly made the perfect rounding-off to the second instalment of this dual cycle that – continuing in March and May then July next year – is steadily emerging as a focal-point in the appreciation of both these composers.