Villiers String Quartet & Julian Gallant at Pushkin House – Tischenko & Shostakovich

String Quartet No.5, Op.90 [UK premiere]
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

Villiers String Quartet [James Dickenson & Tamaki Higashi (violins), Carmen Flores (violia) & Nick Stringfellow (cello)]

Julian Gallant (piano)

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 30 October, 2012
Venue: Pushkin House, London WC1

Boris Tischenko (1939-2010)Boris Ivanovich Tischenko [Tishchenko] (1939-2010) was, for fifty years, a major figure in St Petersburg’s musical life. After his student years he continued studies with Shostakovich and reputedly became the composer’s favourite pupil. He has left a large legacy in a musical catalogue embracing seven symphonies, six string quartets, numerous concertos, ballets, and lots of chamber and instrumental works. Like Shostakovich, Tischenko investigates further the idioms of parody, irony, and anarchy, expressed with a sardonic smile. Certain works, mainly in the symphonic cycle, have an epic sweep, but, generally, Tishchenko was a commentator on the human condition in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. He learnt from Shostakovich how to stay sane within an insane system and how to protect his integrity when so many others were losing theirs.

Villiers String Quartet. Photograph: Charles GervaisThis is by way of an introduction to the Fifth String Quartet, written in 1984. It contains all these elements within a classical model, even to the point of an exposition repeat within a sonata-form first movement. The beguiling opening melody gives way to the harshest dissonances. Contrast is very much a part of the whole work, and the tune that begins the finale was written by his young son. Phrases are constantly repeated, melody is heard then obscured; there are abrupt changes in dynamics and between the highest and lowest registers. After all this deviation in mood and temperature the enigmatic, quiet ending causes puzzlement – the composer’s desire to camouflage his sense of truth from the society around him, where hidden eyes and ears were seeking examples of subversion? In the same way that we know little about Shostakovich’s true intentions in many of his works, Tischenko’s art hides behind a mask of inscrutability. Many Russian artists (including filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Askoldov) share this quality of enigma. The masterful playing of the Villiers String Quartet left a great impression. Using parts supplied by the composer in 2007, the players gave a searing performance. Admittedly, the acoustic was cramped and muddy but the ear adjusted.

Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (1940) does not follow the rules either. Opening with a lengthy piano solo, elsewhere there are long stretches where the piano is silent. In many ways it is an awkward work because of its idiosyncrasy; the musical challenges for sustaining a mixture of extreme astringency with almost naïve simplicity are abundant. Julian Gallant and the Villiers musicians rose to these tasks with skill and understanding. The thundering scherzo delivered its intended mark, and the outer movements were held together with poise and refinement. Shostakovich’s reaction to the hurt and suffering he endured is superbly captured in his intimate and powerful chamber works, not least in the Piano Quintet and in this performance.

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