Wigmore Hall Shostakovich Quartets – 3

String Quartet No.15 in E flat minor, Op.144
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

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

Eva Ostrovsky (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 21 January, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A few weeks ago I attended a recital in which the pianist played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the first half. In the programme note he explained that this might seem strange but felt it was OK. He was wrong: certain works can only be programmed at the end of a concert. The last quartet of Shostakovich is one such. Among Shostakovich’s final works and consisting of six linked slow movements that can last 45 minutes, it demands that nothing follows. A pity, then, that the Aviv Quartet, formed in 1997 with a mixture of young Russian and Israeli members, chose to begin its concert with this very work.

Purity of intonation and precise ensemble was to the fore, from the hushed, slow opening through the impassioned cadenza-like outbursts from the first violin and viola to the desolate ending. The musicians of the Aviv Quartet varied their dynamic range and weight of tone so that after forty minutes of slow music based on an oft-repeated four-note motif – a veritable ‘Dies Irae’ – there was no sense of tiredness. But this is spare, desolate music and the Aviv failed to convey much of its angst; too often expression was sacrificed to beauty of tone. More attack and astringency were needed in the pizzicato passages and the furioso before the coda. You should feel drained and exhausted by the spare harmonies and emotional barrenness of this work – this didn’t happen. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that in a few more years the Aviv will be able to encompass the huge emotional demands that this great music makes, provided its members are less civilised and reticent!

The Piano Quintet can seem discursive when compared to the last quartet. Here pianist Eva Ostrovsky commenced the Bachian Lento introduction with warm tone but excessive restraint. The phrasing needed more undulation and a greater dynamic range. The main Allegro brought more strength and attack, but there were passages which came perilously close to mere note-spinning. The Andante section however flowed beautifully – if tentatively. At its first performance the scherzo was encored; here the attack was concentrated and ensemble immaculate, but the pianist came close to drowning her colleagues out. Yet again savagery was missing and the Aviv’s inability to smash home sforzando passages was a drawback. The last movement, an Allegretto, can sometimes seem a little diffuse; unfortunately the performers did rather meander. A slightly faster tempo and greater concentration would have helped to draw the threads together.

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