Memorable and commanding Schumann and Shostakovich string quartets

The New Zealand String Quartet

Schumann: String Quartets Nos 1 in A minor and 2 in F; Shostakovich: Nos 13 in B flat and 7 in F sharp minor

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Tuesday 31 August, 7.30pm 

This was an important series of ten concerts by the New Zealand String Quartet, in five centres nationwide; it included two different programmes, of all three of Schumann’s quartets and four of Shostakovich’s 15.

I heard the first of the two programmes at the church of St Mary of the Angels on Saturday the 28th, which my colleague Peter Mechen has reviewed (that programme had also been played a week earlier in the Hunter Council Chamber at Victoria University) and the second on Tuesday 31 August, also in the Hunter Council Chamber. There were probably round 200 at St Mary’s and a full house (about 160) at the Hunter room.

The quartet’s challenge was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Schumann who wrote only three string quartets, by putting them with another composer whose music might complement it in some way. At first glance, Shostakovich looked an odd choice, and though Helene Pohl made a reasonable case in her introductory remarks, the connections were rather tenuous: Schumann’s personality dichotomy: his imaginative creations Florestan and Eusebius, and Shostakovich’s two faces – the public one acceptable to the Soviet authorities and the private one which expressed his inner self.

In the end I felt Schumann had paid the bigger price, for there is hardly any music written in any age that equals Shostakovich’s intensity, anguish and profound personal self-revelation in a fearful political environment. Most composers in past eras have lived under repressive regimes of various kinds, but they were the norm; social barriers, lack of freedom and extreme inequality were everywhere; it did not occur to them to depict it in their music.

But Shostakovich’s fate was to live in a place which had declined into a condition that had become much more repressive and dangerous than the rest of Europe (give or take Fascism).

Alongside Shostakovich’s, some of the Schumann music sounded to me emotionally lightweight, as if he was trying to write music that would entertain rather than what was genuinely spirited, with integrity and genuine expressive power.

That struck me particularly in the F major quartet, played last. In the second movement Schumann seemed to be putting on the mask of a happy face to please Clara, who had urged him to write music that audiences would understand. While the Scherzo appealed strongly as one of the most interesting movements, of variety and confident handling, I felt that in the finale, Schumann reverted to his jolly mask, writing music that was more conventional. The real Schumann, on the other hand, wrote music that was joyful, spirited which, up to a point, becomes more exciting the faster it is played, such as the March of the Davidsbündler in Carnaval or the finale of the Piano Concerto, or the Piano Quintet.

Though I had had similar feelings about the last movement of the A minor quartet, its minor key succeeded in keeping Schumann from conventional temptations in the three earlier movements, and the players always exploited in the liveliest way his inventiveness and impressive competence of writing for the four instruments.

What was striking about all Schumann’s quartets however, was both the warmth of the tutti sound, and the interesting music given variously to all four instruments; and I heard more arresting individuality from Gillian Ansell’s viola and Douglas Beilman’s violin that one often hears in quartet context.

Though it was Schumann’s birthday, it was Shostakovich who really stole the limelight. Again, we had the pleasure (if that is in any way the word) of two more of the little-known quartets of Shostakovich. If there were rewarding passages for the viola in Schumann, Shostakovich could be accused of having a torrid love affair with it.

No 13 is an extraordinary piece, written in 1970 when the composer was ill, and at its opening the viola carries most of its unrelenting bleak view of the world – of his world at least. It is in one movement, though there are several contrasting episodes that do offer sufficient variety and structural character to justify its formal status as a quartet. Rolf Gjelsten’s cello also has a major role in the music’s landscape.

Though Shostakovich’s language is essentially tonal, dramatic use is made of pointed discords, that might be followed by high, marcato notes from the violins. Above all, if one does not succumb to the outward pessimism, there is dark and tragic beauty in this piece, which ends with a series of rising harmonics that might suggest either some kind of spiritual aspiration or merely life evaporating to nothingness.

In the second half, they played the more conventionally ordered No 7; three movements following the normal pattern, through a dark liveliness in the first movement, to which the players brought a fierce energy and a thrusting sense of momentum; the change in the Lento movement to Doug Beilman’s angular violin arpeggios, soon joined by Helen Pohl’s febrile first violin. The last movement opens with stunning violence that Gillian Ansell diverted to hollow rhetoric with her beautifully resonant viola; and the piece ends with the violins and viola in flighty ascending scales that seemed to offer solace or consolation.

A Shostakovich Quartet Series
That the quartet has got nearly a third of Shostakovich’s quartets under their collective belts for these two concerts prompted the rather obvious thought that they should be encouraged to master them all and offer them as the musical highlight of the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival. It is time for a musical renaissance at the festival.

I was at the wonderful Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2007 where, at 10pm every other night in the alpine village’s minuscule protestant church, the Israeli Aviv Quartet played them all, not in order but in groups evidently guided by length and contrast. During a week’s stay I heard seven quartets in three concerts (Nos 4 and 14, 1, 12 and 8, and 3 and 7).

The performances captured the more dedicated chamber music lovers and there were struggles to get inside the church, all successful, overcoming any scruples by the local fire department or festival administrators.

These concerts have proved that we have a string quartet capable of interpreting these works with a passion, ferocity, and depth of musical and political insight that is rare. They should be encouraged to undertake the entire Shostakovich quartet canon, some of the greatest music of the 20th century.

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