Note: This was written one year ago today, before I started blogging regularly, and posted to Facebook. I decided it needed to be shared here as well.
After a rather revelatory drive to Ottawa a few weeks ago listening to the first twelve Shostakovich string quartets in sequence, and then finishing up the set on the way home, and then doing some further reading, I felt a strong urge to hear one live. They’re all special, each in its own way, the later ones deeply weird, the earlier ones that interesting mix of emotions and tonality and colours that you get with middle period Shostakovich, all revolving in many ways around the famous, possibly autobiographical Eighth. The challenge in finding a chance to hear one is that chamber music concerts are harder to find in the first place, and then lucking into just the right thing is….well…I didn’t have high hopes, especially this time of year, with its multiple Messiahs and Nutcrackers and other traditional holiday fare. I went Googling anyway. The universe apparently decided that I needed to hear a Shostakovich quartet, too, and soon, because in the midst of all of the holiday concerts, there it was, in Caledon East, of all places, with the Madawaska Quartet. Which one would it be? It would be the Third, opus 57. (Tangent: numbers following me again…my first Shostakovich symphony was the 5th. My first quartet would be the 3rd.)
I drove there yesterday through darkness, through rain, leaving plenty of time in case I should run across delays or detours. There were none to be had. The two pieces on the first half, a Baroque violin duo and a Haydn quartet, were both enjoyable, but somewhat aloof, if that makes any sense. The violist, before beginning the Haydn, gave us a little history of quartets, particularly some of the challenges of the viola in being able to project, and how the role of the second violin, viola, and cello evolved from being mainly support for the first violin in the Haydn to having much more their own voices in subsequent years.
A string quartet is like a symphony’s introverted cousin. With a symphony, the focus is primarily on the ensemble as a whole; when an instrument or section sings out in a solo passage, they do so from within the mass of musicians. Soloists may be in communication with the conductor, but less so with the orchestra as a whole. With a quartet it is like listening to a conversation with four voices. The audience is not part of the conversation, but their involvement is not entirely passive. When you hear this kind of music live, you realize how much you miss simply hearing recordings–body language, expressions, eye contact, and the communication between the four players.
And it is that level of communication and emotion that made this particular performance special. The Shostakovich Third String Quartet in F major (the program was a bit confused–they had it in F minor) was written right after WWII, and a lot of interpreters like to look for echoes of war in the music. They’re there for sure, but with Shostakovich the easy explanation is not the only one. Wendy Lesser, writing about this quartet, mentioned that the composer heard it later in life and it brought him to tears–there was something special about it to him, for sure. What stood out to me is what we would call in art or design the “white space” – not the notes, but the silence–whether it was particular instruments falling silent at particular times, or the amazing quiet staccato section in the second movement that reminded me of someone very delicately picking their way through broken glass, or a minefield, perhaps. But the ending…the ending is indescribably quiet, pulling the listener forward for those last few notes. And then I experienced what had been described to me before as a typical response to one of these quiet endings…silence, as if silence were part of the piece itself, followed by thunderous applause, a standing ovation.
I realized then that there *was* an audience besides me. And that they had heard what I heard. I have no idea who else was in that audience, although it’s probably a safe bet there wasn’t anyone else quite so eager to hear a Shostakovich quartet as I was. But you didn’t have to be an initiate to have that music and that performance work for you.
If there is anything I have learned in the past year diving deeper and deeper into this music, it’s that there is a world of amazing things out there waiting to be discovered, profoundly moving things, perhaps at just the right time. You only grow old when your mind and spirit turns away from discovery and curiosity.
And there it is. Just as the Fifth shall always be my first Shostakovich symphony, the Third has become my first quartet. As such, it has its own added meaning now for me.