Wednesday October 26th, 2016 - The Danish String Quartet (above) in concert at Zankel Hall in a program pairing final masterworks by Shostakovich and Schubert, with cellist Torleif Thedéen joining the Quartet for the Schubert. It was an extraordinary evening of music-making, with the two vividly contrasted pieces superbly played.
The program opened with a performance of the last of Shostakovich's fifteen quartets. Composed in 1974, it consists of six inter-connected movements and has the mood of a farewell to life; indeed, the composer died the following year, after a career periodically darkened by deep conflicts with the Soviet government. The ailing Shostakovich created a work of lyrically spare, bleak textures alternating with violent rhythmic gestures.
The atmosphere of the 15th quartet precludes note-taking; from its quiet opening passage played by the second violin, we are drawn into a unique sound-world of severe beauty and grim intensity. The Danish String Quartet's playing of the opening movement - which the composer indicated should be performed so slowly that listeners would flee the hall out of boredom - took on an almost religious aspect: a sustained and intimate meditation.
The Quartet's hallmark mastery of dynamics, the natural flow of the music from voice to voice, and their finely-balanced layering of sound, created an incredible atmosphere which was sustained throughout the 40-minute work. Moments of great delicacy stood in contrast to jagged slashings; an off-kilter waltz, sustained notes that spring out of nowhere, vibrant trills, a resonant viola cavatina, deep passion from the cello, an overall sense of desolation. Despite a few Playbill-flippers seated near me, the audience was held in a rapt state throughout the piece; the applause - deep and sincere, but not boisterous - signaled the impact the music and the musicians had made.
Feeling both drained and enriched by this monumental musical experience, I remained in my seat throughout the intermission, deep in thought.
Following the interval, the Schubert string quintet in C-major, with cellist Torleif Thedéen joining the ensemble. This quintet, written in 1828, was Schubert’s last extended piece of chamber music. It seems that the composer never heard this final masterwork performed; he died on October 2nd, 1828, and the quintet was not performed publicly until 1850.
One of the longest works in the chamber music repertory, Schubert's C-major quintet sounds more like a celebration of life than a prelude to death. The composer was desperately ill while composing it, but the work has a feeling of optimism - as though he felt he might actually re-bound and compose for another 30 or 40 years. It was not to be, and - as with Mozart, Chopin, and Pergolesi - we are left to ponder what might have been.
The Danish String Quartet's traversal of the Schubert was so persuasive both in tonal beauty and rhythmic inflection that the work sped by. The songful-to-stormy opening movement, with its return to tranquility in C-major, is followed by one of music's most marvelous adagios, underscored by plucked lower notes. The players seemed to be having serious fun in the Scherzo, and then moved on to the gypsy-flavour of the finale.
At the close of the Schubert's joy-filled final Allegretto, the Danes were given an enthusiastic ovation from the audience. The players responded with an encore: a lyrical, chorale-like quintet that was lovingly played.
The Participating Artists:
The Danish String Quartet:
~ Frederik Øland, Violin
~ Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Violin
~ Asbjørn Nørgaard, Viola
~ Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, Cello
Torleif Thedéen, Cello
- SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor, Op. 144
- SCHUBERT String Quintet in C Major, D. 956