United Kingdom Shostakovich, Reich: The Carducci Quartet [Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)], Tithe Barn, Syde, Gloucestershire, 24.1.2015. (RJ)
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No 1 in C major, Op 49
Steve Reich: Different Trains (1988)
It felt as if I was on a trip into a wilderness. Having left the broad highway I was now negotiating the narrowest of country lanes where all vestiges of human habitation petered out hoping that I would encounter no approaching vehicles. I eventually turned a bend and discovered an ancient church next to a tithe barn and stone manor house nestling on the slopes of steepish hill. The edifices were centuries old, but the exterior appearance was deceptive, for inside the barn were plenty of rappings of modernity, enabling it to act as as a splendid venue – visually and acoustically – for this very contemporary chamber music recital.
I soon realised that my rural ride paled into insignificance against the intrepid journey the Carducci Quartet are embarking on this year – to Aldeburgh, Cork, Washington DC and Bogotà, for starters – and more especially the musical challenge they are setting themselves. This year is the 40th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death, and they are scheduled to play ten complete cycles of this composer’s string quartets, including a whole day of them at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in London on August 9th, the anniversary of his death.
This Saturday afternoon recital in the Cotswolds served as the launch of their Shostakovich 15 project, but they restricted themselves to just a taster of what lies ahead, Shostakovich’s First String Quartet. Although written at a difficult time for the composer – his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had incurred Stalin’s displeasure two years before – this work is not as angst-ridden as one might expect it to be. The first movement harks back to the classical style and its second theme is especially relaxed and nonchalant. The second movement, by contrast, was a more melancholy affair. The solo viola introduced the folk-like melody on which the variations are based, but any folksy light-heartedness was absent apart from in the fifth and sixth variations which provided some measure of relief. The musicians expressed the nervousness and quirkiness of the scherzo well, and there was little sense of the tragic, though one could detect a few dark undercurrents to the otherwise cheerful finale.
Steve Reich did a great deal of travelling in his infancy after his parents separated, crisscrossing the USA between Los Angeles and New York accompanied by a governess in order to visit each of them. The experience prompted him in later life to compose Different Trains which contrasts the romance and excitement of rail travel in pre-war America with the very different trains in Europe which transported prisoners to concentration camps and often their deaths. He chooses speech recordings, the rhythms of which are often mimicked by the music, which appear on the pre-recorded performance tape. The tape which also includes railway sounds and music by three quartets provided backing for the Carducci. While the experience was at times extremely moving, one felt that the live players were rather limited in having to keep in time with the tape rather being able toi offer their own interpretation of this work.
Still, this was a bold and imaginative recital concert which, to my surprise, attracted a capacity audience – no doubt reflecting the high regard that the Carducci have earned for their musicianship and advocacy of contemporary music.
Incidentally, this talented Anglo-Irish quartet will be back in the Syde Tithe Barn on the weekend of June 27-28th to play the complete Shostakovich cycle as a curtain raiser to the Cheltenham Music Festival. A weekend package, which includes meals and drinks, is available from the Cheltenham Music Festival (www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music).
For more information on the Carducci Quartet and their tour visit their website: www.carducciquartet.com