Atrium Quartet Recital Shows Beethoven’s Influence on Borodin and Shostakovich

02/04/2015

Borodin, Shostakovich, Beethoven: Atrium Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London 23.3.2015 (GD)

Borodin:  String  Quartet No. 1 in A
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 12 in D flat Op. 133
Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor Op.132

All three works in this recital had a distinct interlinking theme derived from Beethoven. Borodin himself wrote that the opening Allegro to his First Quartet was inspired by a recognisable theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 130. Shostakovich is known to have acknowledged Beethoven as a major influence, especially in his string quartets, indeed the premiere of the String Quartet No. 12 was originally offered to the famous Beethoven Quartet. It was eventually given by the Taniev Quartet due to the death of the Beethoven Quartet’s cellist but the affinity between both Beethoven and the Beethoven Quartet remained intact. And of course all this is consolidated in the last work in the recital; the great A minor, Op. 132 by Beethoven himself.  And the Atrium Quartet belong to a long line of distinctive Russian quartets, including of course the Beethoven Quartet. Borodin just slightly alters the Beethoven Op. 130 theme producing the intonations of a Russian song. And he remains indebted to Beethoven throughout the work for many of the technical procedures, especially the fugato in the development of the first movement, but the spirit and sensibility are strongly  nationalistic and typically Borodinian in the objectivity of the lyricism, which sets them apart from for instance from the psychological subjectivity of Tchaikovsky’s quartets. The melodic invention of the Andante con moto is reminiscent of certain passages in Borodin’s great opera Prince Igorthe Russian cantelina and the ‘oriental’ arabesque giving way to another fugato middle section. But probably the most striking movement is the Scherzo with its constant and scurrying staccati that have been compared to a dance of the elves. And this is not even to mention the unusual harmonic effects of the trio. All were miraculously characterised and contrasted tonight, as was the finale, with its predominance of rhythmic figures and abundance of syncopations, reflecting an intensity of pulsating vitality. The Atrium Quartet has a distinctly Russian sounding tone which perfectly suits this music – a more grainy sound than is usually heard in Western quartets. In strongly rhythmic music it is incisive and sharp, and in the more lyrical sections more openly song-like. These qualities permeated the whole performance, but were especially resonant in passages like the   ‘syncopated drone harmonies on the cello’ accompanied by hauntingly expressive figurations on violin, then viola in the first movement Allegro, brilliantly carried over into the contrasting E major second subject.  The rhythmic vitality of the work’s coda here had a kind of irrepressible dance quality. Overall this was a performance as compelling and idiomatic as one could wish for of this still relatively neglected string quartet masterpiece.

Shostakovich’s 12th Quartet is one of his most extreme works in terms of tonal, textural experimentation. As in the preceding 11th Quartet, but now more dramatically, the composer boldly dramatizes the extreme poles of harmonic language producing a dialectical tension which drives the whole quartet from phrase to phrase and towards a final resolution. The quartet also contains some twelve-note themes, as in the violent and manically driven ‘scherzo’ which quickly states all twelve pitches with violent trills and a five-note figure which reappear throughout. And this is not just a contrived taking from Schoenberg, who deployed the twelve-tone system in an entirely different ‘note-row’ fashion. Shostakovich himself commented that he was using this system as integrated into the whole compositional conceptual framework. But this has not convinced some of the composer’s detractors, who still see this as a kind of self-conscious contrivance. But there was no such scepticism tonight. The Atrium played the quartet with a total conviction which was attentive to the most intricate detail, while never losing sight of work as a whole. This conviction was fully evident in the wonderful forward drive of the performance never sounding static or inert. And this of almost all Shostakovich’s quartets urgently needs such drive particularly in the daunting second movement which is, in fact, not one movement but three – scherzo, adagio and finale. And in dialectical fashion the finale (after a brooding, if not tragic adagio) is a radical redefinition of all that has gone before. It is worth mentioning some (not all) of the more detailed instrumental points that contributed to such a complete and and convincing performance. In the first movement the way in which the 12-tone idea is introduced by the cello, fitting into the tonal soundscape on a sustained D flat, but modulating into quite remote tonal regions such as E major and D flat. Through superbly lucid ensemble work the changing cello line remained clear and vibrant, and always in perfect dialogue with the other three instruments. Also the trio of the quasi scherzo played  sul ponticello (near the bridge) had an almost Mephistophelean unheimlich tone, as did the repeated sharp pizzicato chords on first violin leading into the funeral march-like Adagio section. I was totally captivated throughout, from the contrasting thematic structure and ambiguous tonality of the quartet’s opening to the ‘frenzied’ coda.  

Today we think of Beethoven’s great A minor, Op.132 Quartet as belonging to the elevated heights – the Aura, of his ‘Late Quartets’. indeed some of the vintage performances of these fabled works have obtained their own auratic status. It is arguable that the A minor quartet has obtained an extra auratic quality due to its sublime slow movement – the ‘Song of Thanksgiving’, referring to Beethoven’s recovery from a long illness. But if we take a look at the real context of the work’s gestation we discover that Beethoven was far from sure as to the work’s final outcome – its final form. We know, for instance,  that what is now the fourth movement of his Op 130 Quartet, a dance movement alla tedesca, was originally intended for the second movement of Op. 132, Beethoven eventually composing a sort of slow scherzo for the second movement of Op. 132. Also, he originally intended  the final movement in orchestral terms as the non-choral last movement of the Ninth Symphony. The Atrium played the quartet as it is written, without ever undermining the importance or ‘greatness’ of the work. Unlike some of legendary performances of the  past there was no attempt to overlay the work with any kind of putative ‘aura’. This was more the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation. The slow introduction (with an upward leap of a sixth between the two middle notes: G sharp, A, F, E) forms the introduction’s ‘substance’, and indeed pervades the whole movement. It was articulated with consummate clarity – not just textual clarity, but clarity of the compositional design and how each part relates to the whole movement. The French composer and theorist Vincent d’Inday (neglected now, but popular in his day, late 19th, early 20th Century) described the rather unorthodox structure of the work as ‘three separate expositions, interrupted by developments of the introductory theme’. He had a point, although (making allowances for the unexpected liberties of late Beethoven) it conforms to the accepted plan of sonata form. Particularly compelling was the way in which the Atrium never lost sight (or ear) of the motto theme of the slow introduction and the  way in which it slips in and out of the main thematic contours of the movement. Also compelling was also the way in which they negotiated dynamics, never over-dramatizing modal points, and sustaining an impressive tonal thrust to the movements coda with its pedal point on E. 

The slowish scherzo second movement, closely related to the preceding movement, with its upward-bearing motif answered by a gently drooping one was given just the right sense of a slightly gauche lilt corresponding to the trio’s amusing imitations of a drone instrument, such as a hurdy-gurdy or bagpipes, which they played with a delightful sounding relish, although never losing sight of its basic correspondence to the movement’s thematic structure. The great Adagio the ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ is one of the most written about, and analysed in all classical music. One of the main themes here is of Beethoven leaving the familiar major/minor keys to explore the mystic realms of the ancient church modes, especially using the Lydian mode where phrases of a hymn are framed by more rapid figurations in the manner of a Baroque chorale-prelude. Suffice it to say that the Atrium beautifully contrasted the solemn unfolding of the chorale hymn with its  syncopations and overlapping imitations with the faster dance-like rhythm marked Neue Kraft fuhlend‘ (Feeling new strength). The following ‘Alla danza tedesca’ (German dance) is marked Assai vivace (very lively). It is usually played at a quite a deliberate tempo, probably to emphasise the the spiky, laconic strutting march-like theme full of brittle counterpoint. But here the Atrium invested it with a real thrust at a faster tempo, much closer to Beethoven’s marking. The sudden gear-shift to the quasi operatic recitative sounded more abrupt and more like parody than most renditions. Some have made a link here with the actual choral finale of the 9th Symphony, but the link is more in form than in content. The last movement with its: main sublime theme tinged with irony; its three-part textures rhythmically subversive and truculent, an almost raw sounding and exhilarating thrust at times, its development section with the semblance of a waltz theme – an abrasive imitation – were all played in a way which let the  music unfold with an inevitability matching the very diversity of the music’s design. The tonal gear-shift from A minor to A major in the coda with a transfiguration of the waltz theme was, as one commentator put it, ‘an ecstatic sublimation of the pain and agitation that have gone before.’

One can make numerous comparisons with the myriad alternative performances on and off CD. Comparing this performance with the Busch, Talich or Vegh quartets I would have welcomed perhaps more sustained sotto voce,especially in the great Adagio, but no performance totally lives up to the protean diversity of this masterpiece. Besides, comparisons here are really ‘odious’. After the recital as I walked away from the hall all I thought of was Beethoven’s endlessly fascinating,  diverse and sublime music. Perhaps the highest praise one can pay to any performance.

As a fitting  encore The Atrium played a rapt and sustained rendition of Shostakovich’s Adagio ‘Elegy’ for String Quartet, the first of his two pieces for String Quartet, after Katerina’s Aria from from Scene 3 of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, Op. 29.

Geoff Diggines

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