Wigmore Hall Shostakovich Quartets – 2

String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor, Op.108
String Quartet No.14 in F sharp, Op.142
String Quartet No.2 in A, Op.68

Aviv String Quartet
[Sergey Ostrovsky & Evgenia Ephstein (violins); Shuli Waterman (viola) & Rachel Mercer (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 19 January, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Shostakovich came to the string quartet idiom relatively late in life, with the Second Quartet actually written around the same time as the Ninth symphony. And so while the Aviv String Quartet’s programme may look like an ‘early-middle-late’ layout, Shostakovich’s artistic maturity was never in doubt in even the earliest of these works.

Around the middle of his string quartet oeuvre, Shostakovich found a renewed economy of musical expression. This is evident in the finely tuned Seventh Quartet, over in a mere twelve minutes yet with so much melodic invention it has become one of his most performed chamber works. The Aviv Quartet gave a sharply focussed performance, dynamically responsive and full of character. Evgenia Ephstein’s accompanying figure for the Lento section was particularly plaintive, a counterpart to the sweeter, more lyrical sound of Sergey Ostrovsky. The swirling fugue went a little awry at the onset of the Allegro, but eventually carried all before it, the returning pizzicatos toward the end all the more poignant and atmospheric.

The tonal centre of F sharp continued to dominate, carrying over into the elusive, penultimate quartet. The work’s dedicatee was the Beethoven Quartet’s cellist Sergey Shrinsky, and this was all too evident in the raised profile enjoyed here by Rachel Mercer. At times she seemed to be pitted firmly against her three colleagues, no more so visually than in the final movement, the discordant ascents and sudden downward swipes of the trio at odds with her relatively lyrical, continuous line.

Despite glancing only occasionally at each other these players were superbly unified, capturing the first movement’s bittersweet nature, its uneasy blend of brief moments of comfort and lurking unease. Perhaps here the humorous elements of the cello part were a little too straight, but the same instrument sang reverently in the ‘Tristan’-esque music with which the Adagio began. The real triumph, or moment of rest at least, came at the weightless end, the deceptively simple harmonies borne on the air in a radiant close.

After such a poignant, searching late masterpiece it was something of a shock to encounter the altogether the brasher Second Quartet, the Slavonic opening a little fast but with plenty of open air in the full texture. Sergey Ostrovsky’s full-bodied tone carried the recitative, although the other parts were a little hesitant in their chord changes but producing an organ-like sonority. Shuli Waterman’s beautifully shaped viola line brought a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the ghostly waltz, and a moving simplicity to the unaccompanied theme with which the finale begins. The subsequent variations grew in significance, becoming increasingly savage until the approach to the ending left Ostrovsky high and dry, the others a little backward in volume, until the emphatic minor-key end.

Throughout, the musicians of the Aviv Quartet impressed with the balance of virtuosity and insight that they brought to this remarkable and personal music.

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