String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
String Quartet in E minor, Op.59/2 (Razumovsky)
Brentano String Quartet [Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola) & Nina Lee (cello)]
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 10 March, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The Wigmore Hall is particularly well suited to the intimacy of Shostakovich’s string quartets, and the Brentano String Quartet exploited this quality during the first work of this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Shostakovich completed his String Quartet No.11 in 1966 and dedicated it to the memory of the Beethoven Quartet’s second-violinist, Vassily Shirinsky, the group having worked with the composer for all his previous such works save the First. There was often a hushed dynamic in this performance, and an almost complete lack of vibrato in the opening pages, which seemed to enhance the link with a Baroque suite, whose formal profile Shostakovich takes as a starting point. The musical material was not without emotion, though was often lost in thought. There were nervy melodic asides, largely from Mark Steinberg, and some aggressive eruptions in the ‘Recitative’ with its jarring fortissimo and snatched phrases. The ‘Etude’, a helter-skelter dance of death, was a manic passage for Steinberg, the violin’s line headlong and out of control in a brilliant depiction of a loss of emotional bearings. However the crux came in the ‘Elegy’ and ‘Finale’, with contemplative phrases setting a theme of meditation but still building steadily towards the final piercing high ‘C’ from Steinberg, icy cold yet deeply penetrating.
The second of Beethoven’s three ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartets has one of the most dramatic beginnings in the composer’s output. Here, though, the Brentano players did not supply as much heft to their multiple stopping, preferring to highlight the reserved nature of the material following it. A sombre first movement stayed within its shell but was no less effective, and this intensified the warmth of the slow movement, which was more obviously romantic. A rustic scherzo followed, with an unexpectedly aggressive trio, where Beethoven’s quotation of a Russian folksong rode roughshod over its accompaniment. The Presto finale had a similar coarseness which suited its driving character, and the quick march picked up speed with each appearance until the emphatic and sudden ending, unanimously enjoyed by the musicians.