String Quartet No.5 in B flat, Op.92
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Adagio
The Golden Age Polka
String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
[Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler (violins), Amihai Grosz (viola) & Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 25 February, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
To complete the Wigmore Hall’s survey of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, which has been shared between the Aviv and Jerusalem ensembles, the latter begun with the large-scale No.5, from 1952. Contemporaneous with the Tenth Symphony it shares with that work a kinship in its obsessive use of the DSCH motif and having quasi-orchestral sonorities. The Jerusalem Quartet, three of whose members are of Russian origin, clearly shares a deep affinity for this music – and has recently recorded three Shostakovich quartets, including No.9, for Harmonia Mundi – and played at this recital with resonant power and a beautifully blended sound.
Perhaps No.5’s opening Allegro non troppo was more ‘allegro’ than ‘non troppo’, but there was no doubting the eloquence of Amihai Grosz’s propulsive viola, nor the commitment brought to the movement’s fraught climax which quotes from Galina Ustvolskaya’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1949) – she had been Shostakovich’s pupil and he proposed to her on two occasions and was rejected, which may help explain the mood of barely suppressed hysteria. Connected to the opening movement by a long-held high note on the violin, the Jerusalem caught all the bleached resignation of the slow movement and the mood of the ambivalent fade-out with which the piece ends – rather as if a veil were being gradually drawn over a particularly painful episode in the composer’s life.
After so much angst, the haunting aria from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” – played again as an encore – and the hilarious Polka from the ballet The Golden Age came as balm to the ear, the latter receiving a suitably deadpan performance.
The Ninth Quartet (1964), like its predecessor and the Eighth Symphony, is one of Shostakovich’s five-movement structures; two Adagios encased by three quicker movements played without a break. Quartet No.9 marked the end of an unproductive period for the composer when he was supposedly enjoying a new stability in his personal life. If so, it is hardly reflected in this deeply unsettling music.
After four relatively short movements including a manic klezmer Allegretto, the large-scale fugal finale comes like a bolt from the blue. An altogether tougher and more elusive nut than the Fifth Quartet, it received a high-octane reading but one which was ultimately less satisfying than that of the earlier work. One suspects that there are even darker recesses than were teased out by the Jerusalem or it may be that it is simply a more ambivalent work that defies a conclusive performance. However, to play this difficult work well is a real achievement and marked a distinguished conclusion to the Wigmore Hall’s Shostakovich cycle.