sat 19/09/2020

Shostakovich Cycle, Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Shostakovich Cycle, Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Shostakovich Cycle, Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Peerless playing of three great quartets from one of the world's finest foursomes

The Jerusalem Quartet: Sergei Bresler, Ori Kam, Alexander Pavlovsky and Kyril ZlotnikovFelix Broede

Under what circumstances can Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, the most (over)played of the 15, sound both as harrowing as it possibly can be and absolutely fresh? Well, the context helps: hearing it at the breaking heart of the fourth concert in the Jerusalem Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle gave it extra resonance with the works on either side of it.

Under what circumstances can Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, the most (over)played of the 15, sound both as harrowing as it possibly can be and absolutely fresh? Well, the context helps: hearing it at the breaking heart of the fourth concert in the Jerusalem Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle gave it extra resonance with the works on either side of it. But above all this is a team that plays with a degree of nuance, weight, beauty and commitment that I’ve never heard even the composer’s preferred foursome, the Borodin Quartet, surpass either live or in their numerous recordings. Even if I hadn’t heard their peerless interpretations of the Fifth and Sixth Quartets at the end of the last Wigmore visit, this Eighth would have been enough to turn them into a living legend.

The evening’s trilogy explored an explicitly personal note in Shostakovich’s interlinked quartet chronicle. The elliptical Seventh is dedicated to the memory of first wife Nina, who would have been 50 in 1960; Shostakovich, pictured below at a Bach festival in east Germany, where a bombed Dresden was supposed to be the inspiration for the Eighth, revealed it to his close musical friend Isaak Glikman, with a curious mixture of irony and evasiveness, as a “pseudo-tragedy" dedicated "to the memory of the composer"; and the Ninth, the dedicatee of which is wife no. 3, Irina, who still guards her husband’s memory, ends with a rollicking, savage celebration of a frequent guest at Shostakovich’s table, the “blue-note” theme from the finale of his pupil Galina Ustvolskaya’s Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano.

Shostakovich in 1950It was a much needed emancipation at the end of a rigorous and exhausting programme. As in Shostakovich’s writing for specific original performers, personalities were paramount, but none dominated. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky flicked the quizzical little phrase at the start of the Seventh deftly into life, with impeccable judgment for the right length of pauses and silences, while viola player Ori Kam dug furiously into the whirlwind that kicks off the finale – another variation on the composer’s personal monogram D.SCH (the German transliteration of his initial and the first three letters of his surname, with German letters Es for E flat, and H for B).

Part of the great pleasure for any newcomer must be to watch the keen interaction of the players – the way that second violinist Sergei Bresler smiled so warmly at his colleague each time an unexpected F sharp major, Shostakovich’s “love key”, brought a movement to a close, the physicality that sometimes bounces Pavolvsky out of his seat, the way that infinitely sensitive cellist Kyril Zlotnikov leans to players on his right and left.

Has there ever been a fiercer delivery of the Eighth's first infernal scherzo?

It was Zlotnikov’s delivery of the theme from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk quoted in the great fourth-movement Largo of the Eighth Quartet, paralleling heroine Katerina’s desperate tenderness on the road to Siberia with the composer’s own remembrance of happiness in misery, that brought tears most readily to the eyes. But they were never far away in the quartet’s infinite probing of the variations Shostakovich gets from his D.SCH motto in a work built almost entirely on that and other self-quotations. And has there ever been a fiercer delivery of the first infernal scherzo? Its two plunges into the Jewish melody of the Second Piano Trio was absolutely hair-raising.

Temperatures could afford to be a little lower at first for the Ninth’s equivocal first movement. But again there was deep pathos in the first of the two slow movements as well as new notes in the acid pizzicato and note-row solos of the second, and the control of the vast finale was, again, both rigorous and ultimately exhilarating. That decided me: much as I’d love to hear Iestyn Davies with the Aurora Orchestra tonight, the second instalment has to take priority. So it’s back to the Wigmore Hall for what I don’t doubt will be a third five-star event in less than a week.

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