Breathtaking

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Wherefore, this relentless drive to hear music played live?  At my fingertips, hundreds of thousands of recordings of even the most obscure pieces, some even with videos, where I can watch the performers.  Why, then, would I spend $50 to hear just one piece?

Let’s assume for a moment that that one piece is a chamber work, the Shostakovich 9th string quartet.  I own four recordings of this piece, by the Emerson, Fitzwilliam, Beethoven (who premiered it) and Pacifica Quartets.  I have probably listened to it at least 50 or 60 times.  I know how it goes.  I know how it begins and ends, and the journey it takes in between, and I can follow along as if I were following a well-worn trail, even though each of these recordings is a little different.

I can also tell the tale of its creation and its inspiration. In my last post, I wrote of a trio for piano, violin and cello written for Shostakovich’s first love.  This quartet, written in 1964 (when Shostakovich was 57 years old) was dedicated to the woman who quite likely was his last–his third wife, Irina. She was less than half his age when they met, of the same generation as his children (only slightly older than his daughter).  It would be simplistic, it seems, to view this marriage as simply one in which an ailing Shostakovich sought out a nursemaid and a young woman found someone to take the place of a father lost too early in one of the purges of an earlier age, although certainly there were elements of both in their union. But, as Wendy Lesser has pointed out, it seems that what truly brought them together–and what created a partnership that lasted the remaining 13 years of Shostakovich’s life, through a myriad of physical afflictions–was that the two were kindred spirits in many ways.  Shostakovich describes her as “a girl with a past”–her father, condemned as an ‘enemy of the people, executed’; her mother dying early, with her sent to an orphanage for children of “non-persons” before an aunt took her in. Like him, he had suffered from famine as a child; like him, she had been evacuated from besieged Leningrad.  She was half-Polish (Shostakovich himself had Polish heritage) and half-Jewish, nearsighted, intelligent (she had a job as an editor), quiet, and shy.  There is an incredibly charming account of the first time she met several of Shostakovich’s good friends, where she apparently sat, avoiding eye contact, until it was clear that his friends liked her, and Shostakovich took her hand–an incredible gesture from a man who simply did not initiate physical contact with anyone much, even among friends.  She also seems to have been incredibly resilient and loyal to those she loved.  Among Shostakovich’s friends, it was widely believed that this spirit helped extend his life for many years, and there is seldom a photo of his later years without her by his side. When he became unable to walk up stairs to his apartment, she even became licensed as an elevator operator (yes, those were still a thing in the USSR) so she could assist.  Although she never lost her quiet nature, she became his rock of partnership–different from his gregarious first wife, Nina, but similarly willing to defend the one person he was so often unwilling to defend–himself. After Shostakovich’s death, she became a fierce protector of his legacy.  She’s still alive, incidentally, now in her mid-eighties, and still her late husband’s voice in so many things.

Shostakovich dedicated the Ninth String Quartet, composed in 1964, to her.  If you look at the arc of his quartet dedications, it’s hard to escape the fact that the two works on each side of his Eighth Quartet–the autobiographical one, full of quotations of his own works, said to have been written in the midst of (possibly suicidal) despair–are dedicated to his first wife Nina (the Seventh) and his third wife Irina (the Ninth).  It is as if they are supporting him, holding him up.  The Seventh is Shostakovich’s shortest quartet, just as Nina’s life had been cut tragically short by cancer.  And there’s an interesting story about the Ninth–the work we know was not Shostakovich’s first go at the work–there was at least one other attempt at the work (in 1961), which Shostakovich states he became so frustrated with that he burnt it in the stove.  One can’t help but remember that Shostakovich’s second marriage–one he undertook impulsively–which ended in divorce after only a couple of years–was one he similarly abandoned.

Irina, years later, was asked whether she could see herself in the work, and responded that she could not, but “he said it was there…But he didn’t say how. Maybe he was just happy that things were going well–not to be alone in this life, and that things were going well.”  She mentioned he had started it when she moved in with him in 1962, even before her own divorce was final.  It took him over two years to complete, so it is no portrait of newlywed bliss.   Again, Wendy Lesser: “Like all his quartets…this one is anxiety-ridden, jumpy, unnerving, filled with dissonance and disconnection; if anything, more so. But compared to the Eighth Quartet, the Ninth has a kind of antic glee, a novel feeling of antic vitality mingled with the more familiar fears and hesitations.”  She goes on to mention that it “ends with a bang…firmly, loudly and emphatically.  If this is not optimistic enthusiasm (it never is, with Shostakovich), it is at any rate vigor and resurgence.”  It’s also in a major key – E flat major, in fact, the key of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony.  Lesser credits Irina with being able to foster the kind of stability in Shostakovich’s household that allowed the quartet to emerge–ushering in an era in which Shostakovich would increasingly pour more and more of his deepest thoughts and emotions into his quartets.

Both the Ninth and the Tenth (composed quickly, just a few weeks later, in 1964) are to my ears transitional works, before things get strange and massively introspective.  There are other Shostakovich hallmarks as well–a galloping motif similar to the ‘William Tell’ Overture quotation that he would use in the Fifteenth Symphony, some tinges of Klezmer music here, some possible references to Mussorgsky there, even some jazz influence (he’d organized a concert for Khruschev a few months earlier, not that it did much good.)  There are also references to his film score for Hamlet, particularly in the songs for Ophelia, in the slow fourth movement with its violent pizzicato outbreaks.  Lesser notes that Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, seems to be a recurring theme for Shostakovich–perhaps in the character’s need to ‘put on an antic disposition’ publicly while privately holding very different opinions.  Ophelia, of course, is herself driven to suicide as a result of Hamlet’s cruelty.

I knew what I thought of the work heard over headphones.  It’s so difficult for me to determine my favourite among Shostakovich’s quartets–there isn’t a dud in the batch, one of the reasons I like to listen to the entire sequence of fifteen to see the evolution.  The Third, the Fourth, the fifth, and the Eighth are there, as is the Thirteenth and perhaps the Fifteenth.  The Ninth has always been in that group as well, but probably not at the top.  I couldn’t tell you what in particular made it stand out for me (unlike the wartime third, the Jewish flavour of the Fourth, or the percussive effects of the Thirteenth).   I’d previously only heard the Third played live, and that was enough for it to rise in my personal estimation.  But what would I make of this one?

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The Schumann Quartett consists of the three Schumann brothers–violinists Erik and Ken, and cellist Mark–along with violist Liisa Randalu. The brothers grew up in the Rhineland area of Germany, and in 2012, after playing together for five years, were joined by the Estonian-born Randalu.  The brothers look remarkably similar, especially Erik and Ken, who share similar expressions, body language, and haircuts.  Cellist Mark wears glasses, but otherwise greatly resembles his brothers. Randalu, in contrast, is tall and blonde and is, by far, the most expressive of the quartet, perhaps because she often angles her body around so that her instrument faces forward rather than to the back.  Also on the program was a Hayden quartet–one of his early ones (opus 1 no. 1, in fact), and From My Life by Smetana.  All were beautifully played, and the Smetana in particular was full of expressive musical language, but it was the intensity and brutality of the Shostakovich that absolutely stunned me, almost to the point of recoil, yet at the same time I was drawn further and further in, wanting to hear it all.  This is partially because of the huge contrasts within the piece.  Says Lesser: “The tone of the whole quartet is not so much ambivalent as oppositional. Two contradictory states of mine are brought into being at once, and whether things will end well or badly is anyone’s guess.”

The work opens with a kind of a wandering, swirling figure passed around through the various instruments.  It has a bit of a drone-like feel to it, a sense of nervous anticipation before a bouncy cello melody kicks off over pizzicato in the upper strings.  At this point, the pizzicato is light, and soon the initial melody returns, and playfully skips around through all four players.  The Schumann Quartet brought to this movement a sense of nervous anticipation, a sort of tentative playfulness and delicacy.   All five movements of this quartet are played without pause, and a long note from the violist ushers in the second movement, with its absolutely gorgeous, shimmering harmonies–sometimes diaphanous, sometimes chromatic, a classic Shostakovichian slow movement. Particularly apparent here was how tight the quartet was, even without an excessive amount of eye contact or facial expression.  They just seemed to know where each other were at all times and how precisely to balance their sound perfectly.

And then, tentatively at first, and then more jauntily, we’re off to the klezmer-meets-Rossini third movement.  What impressed me here was how softly and delicately the Schumanns played this melody, making the antic chords that suddenly intrude in the middle of the movement even more dramatic.  Suddenly, fiercely-plucked strings, and a trilling motif sounding for all the world like a swarm of excited bees (not particularly angry ones, but certainly vaguely threatening), and this is when the utter intensity of the work began to unfold.  There are glissandos, more pizzicato, some “trumpet-like” chords, and a skipping first violin melody that eventually moves down into the cello and then back up to the viola, even perhaps a hint of jazz in some of the chords and rhythms.  And seeing this played live, I not only heard these effects, but saw them as well.  And then into the “catatonic” fourth movement, where the first violin wanders back and forth over the same two notes while the rest of the quartet moves slowly beneath it, and then intense, loudly- plucked chords intrude–so fiercely did the musicians pluck the strings, I found myself wondering whether they lost any of their tuning in this process (no chance to re-tune in this work!)  And again, that sense of the first violinist bursting out with a heartfelt cry–at times, almost a shriek– over a dissonant drone beneath, before returning to the initial searching motif before dying away.

The final movement could be almost a quartet in itself, and it’s here that the Schumann Quartet hit it out of the park.  Writer Stephen Harris says of this movement “Its concentrated excitement, vitality and energy, makes it the most exhilarating finale in all the cycle.”  The music is written to build up tension, holding it until it figuratively explodes beyond the scale of four musicians sharing a stage.  Shostakovich is a master of this–the finales of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies are prominent examples–but nowhere else does he have only four musicians to work with, and they have to be up to the task, as the Schumann Quartet was. The movement starts fugally, and then moves into a warped dancelike segment, where the first violin states a melody; the second violin responds with a passage in the instrument’s lowest register, capped by a glissando, and then seems to wander off into a field of D flats (in eighth notes)  while the viola and then the cello responds to the violin melody,  Then it’s back to a fugue as dense as the fugato in the Fourth Symphony, before dissolving into a confusion of tremelo–which suddenly drops from triple forte to pianissimo in one note while the cello brings back the melody from the fourth movement before a series of plucked chords recalling that movement. More immense chords played by all four musicians, and then that wandering theme, and then it’s back to the violin tune from the third movement, which pulls the whole ensemble out of the pizzicato ditch, as it were, with that ‘William Tell’ rhythm.  And then, a shriek from the first violin and suddenly the intensity began to ramp up towards the explosive finale.  There were more fierce, dissonant chords–the musicians now digging into the strings– the cello was singing out it its upper registers, and we were in the midst of an over 200-bar crescendo to the end  Violins and the viola and cello traded passages of eighth notes over louder and louder chords, and the key settles back into E flat, and just when it felt to me like the end was coming there was a glissando on all four instruments, then another one, and the intensity increased again  I was almost breathless at this point, each chord digging deeper and deeper and deeper and louder than before, the tension unbearably wonderful, as the movement came to a triple forte end.  It took a second or two to find my breath.  I was actually dizzy.

This felt personal.  I felt part of this performance.  Sitting just five rows back, I felt absolutely immersed in the work’s being.  I felt the vibration of each chord, the shriek of the violin, the song of the cello, as if I were making those sounds.  For around 27 minutes, I was directly plugged into the sounds Shostakovich heard in his own brain while he composed this music.  I was more than a listener–I was a participant.

And that’s why I seek out live music.

*****

When the concert came to an end (standing ovation), the Schumann Quartet played an encore which made me think, perhaps, the Shostakovich meant the most to them of the three works played–they chose to play the Elegy from the Two Pieces for String Quartet, an arrangement of one of Katerina’s arias from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This simple, haunting piece was absolutely gorgeous and an unexpected bonus prize.

And on the way to the subway, I got to walk through one of the most sublime spaces in downtown Toronto, which, like the quartet I just heard, never fails to take my breath away.

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In just about a week, I’ll hear the Eighth Quartet played live, a work which has some additional personal meaning for me that the Ninth did not.  I wonder what it will do to me?

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