Kopelman Quartet & Elisabeth Leonskaja at Wigmore Hall – Borodin & Shostakovich

String Quartet No.1 in A
Two Pieces for String Quartet – Elegy & Polka
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

Kopelman Quartet [Mikhail Kopelman & Boris Kuschnir (violins), Igor Sulyga (viola) & Mikhail Milman (cello)]

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 21 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was an enormously distinguished concert. The Kopelman Quartet was founded in 2002, its players being former members of the Borodin and Moscow Quartets along with a cellist who was a long-time leader in the Moscow Virtuosi. All four players share common roots at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1970s, in retrospect a ‘golden age’ when students had regular contact with such as David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and Natalia Gutman. Two of the Kopelman’s musicians, Boris Kuschnir and Igor Sulyga, also worked closely with Shostakovich (on his final string quartets), so the group brings a rare authority to his music and – given the participation of Elisabeth Leonskaja – to the piano quintet in particular.

In contrast to its better-known successor, Borodin’s First String Quartet – a substantial work lasting just under 40 minutes – has suffered comparative and unjustified neglect. Whilst it may lack the unforgettable tunes which make the Second such work an instant classical ‘hit’, the First is of almost equal quality and ripe for rediscovery.

The first movement runs to just under twenty minutes and may be unduly discursive. However the Kopelman Quartet, refusing to inflate the music, made the strongest possible case for it, bringing an aristocratic poise and understated elegance. The players’ refined blend and care for quality of sound evoked in microcosm something of that same finesse which made the strings of the Leningrad Philharmonic so remarkable in their heyday, whilst the Kopelman’s ability to characterise moments such as the shadowy fugato at the slow movement’s heart made light of what might have been the work’s longer. Especially memorable were the airy scherzo, the trio distinctive for its use of cello harmonics, and the chattering finale, both perfectly paced.

By way of an appetiser for the Piano Quintet the first half closed with Shostakovich’s Elegy and Polka, arrangements dating from around 1931 but not known until after the composer’s death. Both pieces are music familiar in a different guise. Elegy is an eloquent re-working of Katerina’s poignant aria from “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” as she looks from her window at two doves mating and imagines that her life will “pass without a smile”, whilst ‘Polka’ is the one from The Age of Gold. Mikhail Kopelman’s hypnotic and deeply felt account of Elegy is one of those moments – almost a personal eulogy – which will linger long in the mind, whilst the group despatched Polka with a deadpan humour and perfect timing. Seldom either has one heard pizzicatos of such resonant fullness that they almost seemed to fill the hall.

With these artists the account of the Piano Quintet was almost hors de concours. One can hardly imagine a more complete exploration. In view of Shostakovich’s ‘near-death’ experience over “Lady Macbeth” it is doubly ironic that the work should have earned the composer the Stalin Prize since, whatever its more knockabout aspects (the scherzo), for much of its duration it can only be described as Darkness Visible.

Elisabeth Leonskaja has made something of a speciality of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet and on this occasion she launched it with stark ferocity which joined seamlessly into the viola’s extended threnody. The succeeding Fugue, ushered in by a violin solo like a voice in the wilderness, brings repeated echoes of the Fifth Symphony’s opening movement, and the movement’s climax packed a similarly visceral punch. The scherzo (repeated as an encore), taken steadily, had enormous weight and – by observing its Allegretto marking – avoided using it for display. The succeeding Intermezzo with its aching violin solo over a pizzicato accompaniment echoes the world of the Elegy, the Kopelman members inhabiting the music, whilst the Allegretto finale, its moments of extreme queasiness and foreboding tempered by fragile optimism as though the players were tiptoeing on eggshells, perfectly captured that sense of ‘smiling through gritted teeth’. Would that this concert have been recorded.

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