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Fireworks from the Emerson Quartet: Shostakovich last quartets

No one present will soon forget this triumphal evening of Shostakovich at his most eloquent, and the Emerson String Quartet’s arriving at a new pinnacle of glorious accomplishment.

If there were any doubt about the quality of the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose work has been programmed so infrequently at Tanglewood during James Levine’s directorship, it was thoroughly dispatched in Ozawa Hall when the Emerson String Quartet performed his Quartets 11 through 15 in a single, stunning sitting.

Here were, in miniature, the full-throated, exuberantly-orchestrated, passionate, crashing, whispering, moaning, overwhelming emotions that reach out and shake you in the symphonies, the dazzling, near-impossible technical challenges of the solo repertory, and the profound comprehension of the expressive possibilities in the softest, highest harmonic, the nearly-inaudible tap of the bow on the wood of a stringed instrument, or the challenge to the sections of an ensemble to pull together a thrown-about melodic phrase.

And in a string quartet! And what a string quartet! The Emersons have been transformed from an accomplished and articulate group of virtuoso collaborators to an organic, breathing, thinking, choir of attuned ensemble voices, capable of the deepest lyrical sensibilities, the most sensitive and subtle nuances of rhythm and harmony, and the most terrible devilish proclamations. We heard it first when Paul Watkins made his cello debut at South Mountain Concerts last Fall, and now, with further gestation, delivering his twin gifts, a magical calibration of instrumental sonority, and a mature conductor’s sense of the composer’s intentions. These were expressed audibly in astute adjustments of bowing and vibrato, in his responsive listening, and visibly, in his taking a position of intellectual leadership: cuing, approving, clarifying the counterpoint with his bow, and signaling with a whole palette of facial expressions, eyebrow and eye movements, his knowing sense of the unfolding story.


Photograph by Hilary Scott.
Photograph by Hilary Scott.

The first two quartets on the program, numbers 11 and 12, are not easy pieces. Beginning serenely, they quickly become ominous, with gently-roaming melodic strands evolving into mysterious conversations and sudden frissons (C minor chords with overlaid tritones) in the first, and a low-register warning stir in the cello following a gently-rocking 6/8 prelude in the second.

The 11th quartet is performed without pause and features dense and dissonant contrapuntal passages that occasionally give way to clear and accessible harmonies. After a snarl of snaky lines, a snippet of a folk song emerges quietly and expands to a bold, unison exhortation. A martial theme struts in C major, giving way to sustained dissonant chords in the upper voices, while the cello saws violently in the low register.

Then, surprise! A prominent “Cuckoo” call is sounded by the first violin, diminishing in volume as it jumps across the second violin to the cello, before dissolving through dense textures to a piano G major chord. Over a strong, open C in the cello (its lowest string), the “Cuckoo” returns, even as the C morphs in intensity into a sustained pedal point. The fiddles jitter intensely, as if frightened by the creature below.

After a prolonged, 2-second rest, that rattling, sustained C returns and the old folk song returns in a G tonality, wafting a dissonant B-C minor second, as the harmonies collide, into the air. Suddenly again, the mood changes, as a brief, pianissimo melody gets tossed to the 2nd violin. As the pedal C returns in the cello, a pizzicato echo of the song emerges from the viola, and the volume starts to pick up. Then, with no warning, the whole ensemble hushes again, beautifully changing the mood to further uncertainty about what is coming next. As the quartet searches for a resolution, the sustained C is delivered to the violins as the viola and cello tentatively explore a final, F minor sensibility. A brilliant solo violin cadenza ends the quartet, on an intense excursion ending in an exquisitely-controlled long-note diminuendo.

A burst of applause followed, suggesting that the many ambiguities and dissonant passages fell on welcoming ears. Surely, this was food for thought, about which more below. But equally, this listener believes, there was respect for the performers’ committed engagement with this challenging piece. Though the night was young (five quartets in three sections, with two intermissions), there was no sense of conserving energy or holding back. These gentlemen dug in, constantly, seriously, and thoughtfully. That they were seated, in exception to their usual practice of standing, might have had some significance in the stamina department. But the technical demands were met straight on, and their shared ownership of the music, of profound attention to their own and one another’s voices, and indeed, their distributed leadership was manifestly evident.

The two violins, who rotate the first position between them, are first-rate masters of their instruments. Unlike Paul Watson, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer are muted in expression, except in their playing. (Violist Lawrence Dutton falls in between.) Neither facial movement nor balletics give emphasis to their take on the emotions of the music. Rather, the glorious sounds they make on their instruments speak for themselves.

It is perhaps not too much of a stretch in this context to make reference to one of the 20th century’s most noted virtuosos, Nathan Milstein, who was sometimes called the “least Russian of the Russian violinists.” He eschewed the “grand manner” of his friend, Vladimir Horowitz, he noted in his memoir, and was sometimes criticized for his allegedly academic manner. Because of his reserve and appearance of intellectuality, he wrote, he didn’t become a “star.” But if the musical firmament were full of celestial bodies like Drucker and Setzer, the nights might not be brighter, but the gravitational pull toward elevating, exalted music-making would surely be stronger. Indeed, as if one needed any validation, the enjoyment of this concert was enhanced by the presence of both YoYo Ma and Joseph Silverstein in the audience.

Were the reader to be curious, here is an informative interview with Eugene Drucker, giving musical illustrations from the Saint-Saens Sonata,


to compare with a gorgeous excerpt by Philip Setzer from Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, Opus 99, II, along with cellist David Finckel, Paul Watson’s long-serving predecessor in the Emerson Quartet and pianist Wu Han


to compare to from Nathan Milstein’s renowned performance of the third Saint-Saens Violin Concerto, III


Why then, do we go to Tanglewood? There is no one answer, but surely, not least of its attraction is the promise of splendid, seeking, transporting artistry like this. As here, on this night.

Like the 11th, the Shostakovich 12th quartet immerses the listener in a puzzle of inexplicable and vanishing effects with a predominantly sad tonality, here relieved by stunningly accessible moments of sweetness. The threat of human conflict is sounded by a repeated variant of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony “victory” theme, but the ta-ta-ta-tum becomes a rapid, martial ta-ta-ta-ta-tum, like a pair of paradiddles on the snare drum, sounding soon after the start of the 2nd movement and recurring in the percussive, minor-toned ending.

Swirling around this rhythmic assertion at the start of the movement are passionately intense viola and cello phrases reminiscent of Bartok, with meters shifting from quadruple to triple, spiraling legato lines in the fiddles, creating a web of confusion. The Beethoven 5 theme is literally quoted by the viola with a few scraped embellishments, and a sort of Baltic folksong strand leads into an astonishingly sweet G major chord. Some quiet, chromatic rumination in the low registers of all the instruments follows. Then all the mutes come on, and a prayerful, dynamically nuanced progression of G minor F diminished, B flat minor, A flat major. Perfect fifths voiced by the first violin and viola ascend to an exquisite B flat major chord even as a quick diminuendo extinguishes the phrase.

All this searching draws us forward, through violin pizzicati that build up to the familiar “Cuckoo” of the 11th quartet. We are back in the woods, as the bird climbs up and up and, all of sudden the mutes come off and intense, strong double-stops sound in pizzicato and arco (bowed) assertions.

Their meaning is clarified by an F minor squirreling of violins and a call to arms by the cello and viola. The first violin screams and wails over blasts of pizzicato dissonances by the second violin, viola, and cello. If there were a movie about Picasso’s “Guernica,” this could be its soundtrack!

A quiet, hymnal, muted recession follows this inhumane battle, with stately D minor, E flat major, G minor, F minor chords mutating to a Ravellian wash of gentle chromaticism. The calm gives way to a still-muted viola solo, interrupted by more ta-ta-ta-ta-tums in several harmonic tonalities and false cadences. At the last, a vaulting cello line embraces a last set of ta-ta-ta-ta tums before the entire quartet proclaims a powerful, percussive, minor take-down of all the pleasant stuff that has gone before.

Shostakovich appears in these two quartets to be asking, “What is a composer to do in the face of all this mid-century madness?” He seems to be sorting through our universal strivings for harmony, identity, and connection after three decades of civil and wartime destruction of Russia, its peoples dispirited by zealots, armies, and apparatchiks attacking from both outside and within. Where we long for sweet song, the peace of the woods, and the plenty of our fields, what do we get? Bursts of weapons, bombs and machine guns disrupt our dreams (ta-ta-ta-ta-tum); forced famines, arbitrary imprisonments, and genocidal murders (see: Baba-Yar) destroy our loved ones; and the drums of war pollute our quest for beauty. And yet, and yet, we keep on keeping on, especially we musicians. We have an obligation to honest expression, reaching for a higher plane of existence and communication to whatever audience can connect with us there.

This is what it felt like in Ozawa Hall in the first portion of the Emerson Quartet’s concert.

The music became more and more accessible in the 13th, 14th, and 15th quartets, written in 1970, 1973, and 1974.

Eugene Drucker moved to the first violin position for the 13th, a work that included occasional hard scrapings of that “Beethoven 5” rhythm, ominous ruminations in the instruments’ lower registers, and some novel instrumental effects. All of a sudden, after one of those martial effects, there was quiet, and a mysterious tapping sound seemed to bounce around the stage. It was the second violin, then the viola, then the cello, playing col legno (with the wood) or col legno battuto (hitting with the wood), not against the string, but on the wood of their instruments. The odd, occasional incidents became more frequent, until the second violin directed a stream of at least 8 hits, not on the wood, but on his chin rest. (This was seemingly a smart move.)

Then a high, keening cello melody introduced a strong, ugly tritone (an augmented fourth), and a whirling succession of trills in the low register of the second violin led to a repeated, monotonous reiteration of the “Beethoven 5” rhythm, extending across all the instruments. Had the war returned?

Not exactly, it turned out, or so it seemed. Relief was granted as the viola sounded a familiar theme, the short, legato phrases it uttered at the very beginning of the quartet, morphing into a lovely counterpoint and a unison version of the lyric across the second violin, viola, and cello. The viola continued its exploration of the theme over perfect fifths in the lower registers of the violins, expanding to a cascade of descending seconds, each becoming the dissonant portion of a resolving appoggiatura, a satisfying, indeed relieving, buildup to a brilliant finale. First, parallel fifths by the violins grouped around short viola phrases. Next, the viola reached for higher and higher appoggiaturas, weeping over more col legno by the second violin, the viola in a tour de force, continuing its ascent to a long sustained, high, high C harmonic starting piano and slowly, slowly in one drawn stroke of Lawrence Dutton’s blow increasing in volume to a final, perfectly-ending fortissimo. As sublime as was this artistry, the audience was left with a real sense of the triumph of the human spirit. Another burst of applause followed, this time with cheers, telegraphing a shared sentiment, “Bravo Shostakovich, bravo Emersons, bravo Dutton!”

The fourth Shostakovich quartet was warmer, elegiac, and far more diatonic in tonality. Absent of martial intrusions and declamations, there were more arching, engaging melodic lines and a lovely nocturne featuring a cello-dominated, muted ensemble passage that ends with an affecting series of pizzicato triplets by the first violin. Then the violin sings a wildly abandoned, strongly articulated, melody over pulsing rhythms by the remaining trio, culminating in a delicious tossing-about of 3- and 4-note scraps of its line.

Continuing in this exciting spirit, a high, muted first violin throws a passionate lyric to the muted viola, where it’s transmogrified into gloriously intoned double-stops and melodic variations. Then, after a stunning, sustained, unison G, the tempo accelerates to – oh no! – the return of the ferocious, half-remembered ta-ta-ta-ta-tums return, but, thankfully dissolve into warm arpeggios all around the G tonality, with the first and second violins playing a half-familiar melody in sweet sixths over the pizzicato viola. The threat of war becomes a sunny picnic, and after a brief, exquisite, soft cello cadenza the piece draws thoughtfully to an end in a solemn romantic story, expressed in simply articulated chords, E flat, G followed by two parenthetical ta-ta-ta-ta-tums and then a D seventh, G, C minor, D seventh, G, mildly reminiscent of the ending of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” This was a peaceful, contemplative, welcome resolution before the second intermission, a contextualized memory of wartime suffering in the continuing arc of life.

Prior to the beginning of the fifteenth quartet, the Hall lost a third of its audience, making its ambience much more resonant and alive. Eugene Drucker returned to the first violin position and bingo, the quartet projected more powerfully, with more pronounced nuances. Philip Setzer stated the initial melody, to which Drucker responded in extended counterpoint. The cello joined in, picking up a repeated rhythm (two eighth notes followed by a quarter note) and with the violin transported the predominantly major tonality to the dark blue key of E minor.

A Hebraic theme was sounded in sweetly accessible adagio with romantic harmonies oscillating from E minor to C major, pivoting on the E minor sixth (D flat) to a D flat major first violin development of the melody, modulating back to bright C major. Here, Drucker gave a honeyed start to a marvelous interplay of violins in the middle register, exchanging the lovely lyric with very high cello and very low viola, as if, through the weird and wonderful new-found orchestration they were about to introduce something new. And there it was, that old Ochichornia (Dark Eyes) tune, briefly quoted in low-register violin. After this little chestnut, the first movement drew to a close with a peaceful reiteration of that three-note rhythm from the beginning, expressed in single voices.

Without pause, the second movement shifted toward the dramatic, with the introduction of an extraordinary device after a short waltz: each instrument bowed a long note glissing upward in a single sweep, simultaneously increasing its volume to fortissimo. Each participant in this challenging exertion contributed to a brilliantly-unfolding melodic line, typically but not always at the beginning point of the sweep. The melody was seamless. Soon it folded into a multistranded, Bartokian polyphony. Once more in waltz time, the ensemble threw it back and forth, building to a huge, virtuosic first violin cadenza with contributions by the second over a cello pedal point on a low E.

Coming up for air after this extravagant display of instrumental and ensemble accomplishment, the Emersons (or rather, perhaps, Shostakovich) offered a sweet intermezzo in quarter time. Romantic progressions proceeded through D, E flat, G, and F to a gracious, contemplative ending.

After a third movement of stirring E minor triads, viola and cello solos yielded striking chromaticisms. Still another brilliant first violin solo shifted the harmonic center through a sad C minor to a pleasant G major, by far the closest thing to easy listening in the entire concert. And what fine easy listening it was!

After nearly three hours, the performance ended with more sparkling fireworks: a dazzling first violin cadenza ending in low trills; sustained, muted, rapid tremolo notes lifting the whole ensemble into astounding, sudden crescendos and decrescendos; and still three more subtly nuanced, muted tremolo passages, this time supporting solo cello and viola melodies, and, at last, a quiet, E minor triad.

After an appropriate moment of contemplation, the audience rose in acclaim. The Emerson Quartet had given its all to this music, and responded to this expression of gratitude with their own applause. No one present will soon forget this triumphal evening of Shostakovich at his most eloquent, and the Emerson String Quartet’s arriving at a new pinnacle of glorious accomplishment.



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