Leonskaja and Jerusalem Quartet in Perfect Dialogue

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich:  Elizabeth Leonskaja (piano), Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 12.11.13.  (GD)

String Quartet No. 1 in C Op. 49
Elegy and Polka for string quartet
Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57


The First Quartet of Shostakovich ( 1938) is generally considered to be a kind of student work with none of the profundity of the later quartets. But by the time the Jerusalem quartet approached the short development section of the first movement I could trace all kinds of allusion to the later works. The glowing C major which permeates much of this music has an almost Haydnesque quality to it, and the Jerusalem Quartet wisely played the second movement as marked, Moderato, never dragging, but measured.  Like the quartet as a whole there is a wonderful sense of economy here. The main A minor soon develops into a round of different tonalities, in classical variation form.  The mood here is not exactly tragic in any sense, although there is an underlying darkness and intensity.  The C sharp minor Allegro molto, really a scherzo, with its tone of muted irony, was delivered with a wonderful sense of Shostakovich’s play on humour and something quite distant from  humour. This empathy sustained itself in the finale with its three-crotchet motif that often recurs in subsequent works. In contrast to the emphasis on sharpness and precision found in some of today’s eminent quartets  the Jerusalem Quartet’s general tone has a sonorous warmth about it which reminded me of some of the older quartet traditions in Europe and Russia, redolent of the Talich or Borodin Quartets, among others. But this is in no way to suggest that  the Jerusalem’s lack anything in terms of brilliance and virtuosity when required.

These same qualities of intensity and irony/humour are also to be heard in the earlier (1931) Elegy and Polka for string quartet. At the time the composer was working on his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, and the light-hearted but satirical ballet The Golden Age.  The work is now nearly always included in complete cycles of the quartets, both on and off record. The closing Polka, from The Golden Age, is quite hilarious in its suggestive dance rhythms. Sounding almost like a kind of Russian version of an Offenbach dance, it was delivered tonight with superb panache and unbuttoned flair.

The Piano Quintet was first performed in Moscow in November 1940 by the Beethoven Quartet with Shostakovich playing the piano part. It was received with great acclaim, winning the Stalin Prize. Although the composer was very pleased with both the work and the performance it had, the work continues to have a mixed reception. Prokofiev thought it was not the composer at his best. Others have seen it as a brooding dark work, probably to do with the influence of Shostakovich’s edition of Moussorgsky’s  Boris Godounov which he had just finished. But it is difficult to see/hear this influence.  Nowadays it is occasionally performed but certainly not as much as it deserves. There are some good recordings but the one made by the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter in 1983 is a hard act to follow and has probably put some pianists off of recording the work.  Leonskaja studied with Richter and his performances of the work greatly influenced her. And this came over tonight with her broad and eloquent pacing of the opening Bach-like prelude in which all the main themes of the work can be found. This whole opening with piano and strings produced an extraordinarily rich and full dynamic range tonight, helped of course by the ideal acoustic of the Wigmore Hall.

In the rest of the movement all the contrasts and tonal twists and turns, underscored by Russian folk inflections and some more intense tones, were  beautifully brought together with quartet and soloist in perfect dialogue and accord. The Fugue:Adagio second movement was wonderfully sustained. As the contemplative fugue unfolded I had a strong impression of the fugal opening of Beethoven’s Opus 131 C sharp minor Quartet. Perhaps Shostakovich was acknowledging the name of the quartet with which he gave the premiere? This is possible, but  the influence of Beethoven can be found in many of his works. Although the following Scherzo is a more strongly accented movement full of suggestions from Russian folk themes/tunes, there is another Beethovenian inflection; here the use of a fragment from the opening rough melody, in conjunction with a sharply rhythmic violin theme, to build up tension. Leonskaja’s high octaves at the end of the movement had to be heard to be believed! The Intermezzo, with its mood of restrained regret, was projected with sustained concentration, the underlying ‘walking’ bass never sagging in tempo or unity. The finale, with its contrasts of gentle reflection and robust humour was wonderfully shaped as a whole and in its detail. The swooning upward violin phrases in the coda with their  suggestion of cabaret music came as an unexpected surprise, even though I have heard the work many times in concert and on record.

As an encore Leonskaja and the quartet gave a spirited repeat of the Scherzo.

Geoff Diggines.

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