United Kingdom Shostakovich, Mendelssohn: The Allegri Quartet [Ofer Falk, Rafael Todes (violins), Dorothea Vogel (viola), Vanessa Lucas-Smith (cello)], Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 6.2.2015 (GPu)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op. 122
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.6 in F minor, Op. 80
The programme for this lunchtime concert was advertised as Shostakovich’s thirteenth and Mendelssohn’s sixth quartets. Indeed these were the works which appeared on the printed programme distributed on the door. Those who arrived early were treated to an intelligent and articulate pre-concert talk by a student whose name I didn’t, unfortunately, catch. She spoke perceptively of the way in which for a number of composers the string quartet has tended to reflect more or less directly what one might call ‘autobiographical’ elements, certainly more directly than has been the case when the same composers were writing, say, symphonies or concertos. She heard, in the scheduled quartets “outcries of pain” as well as complex musical structures, speaking of how both quartets were written in response to specific deaths, as well as reflecting their composer’s awareness of their own mortality. The talk was thoughtful, well researched and perceptive, and also well-delivered.
However, the applause for the speaker had only just died down (and the speaker taken a seat in the auditorium) when the quartet took the stage and leader Ofer Falk announced “You have just heard an articulate talk on Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Quartet. We are actually going to begin by playing Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet”. The announcement was greeted by a fair amount of laughter, but I couldn’t help but feel that the student-speaker probably didn’t think that this change of programme was altogether a laughing matter.
In essence, her talk retained its validity, since the changed programme (of two works in F minor) combined two quartets both written in response to the death of an individual – Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 11 being occasioned by the death of Vasily Petrovich Shirinsky, second violin of the Beethoven Quartet (the ensemble which had premiered most of the composer’s earlier quartets).
Elegy, literary or musical, obviously celebrates and commemorates the deceased, but the best elegies also, in the very intensity of their personal feeling, paradoxically universalise the subject, becoming meditations on the fact of personal death (including the inevitable later death of the writer or composer). Such works often make some kind of affirmative gesture or statement, even if obliquely. Our pre-concert speaker helpfully reminded us of Shostakovich’s observation that “When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something”.
Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet (the seven uninterrupted sections of which begin with a desolate statement by the first violin – as if bereft of his dead fellow-instrumentalist) is a work full of anger, sometimes expressed with burningly ferocious directness, sometimes explored sardonically, sometimes examined in an almost mocking manner. The Allegri Quartet registered vividly this range of feeling and tone, in playing of well-shaped intensity. My one reservation was that the opening of the whole piece didn’t quite have the absolute bleakness of the very best performances of this quartet, but the sheer power of Shostakovich’s writing was consistently articulated with skill and passionate commitment, the result being simultaneously (and quite properly so!) both disturbing and invigorating.
Any listener who didn’t previously know this particular quartet, but had heard a certain amount of Shostakovich’s work would probably have little difficulty in recognising this as one of his compositions. Every page of the score is, metaphorically speaking, covered in Shostakovich’s fingerprints. The second quartet heard in this concert, Mendelssohn’s Sixth, presents a rather different case. As James Keller notes in his book Chamber Music (2011): “this final quartet is unlike any of [Mendelssohn’s] quartets that had come before”. Nor is there any real forerunner in any other example of the composer’s work to prepare one for the acerbity and ‘violence’ of this quartet. The date, and the personal circumstances, of its composition are the clues here. It was written in 1847 and seems to be the last of Mendelssohn’s completed compositions. By the beginning of 1847, Mendelssohn’s hectic schedule and prolific output seem to have left him feeling deeply exhausted, and his letters of the period show him disillusioned with many aspects of his life and work. In the spring of 1847 a busy visit to England found him telling one friend, “Another exhausting week like that will kill me”. When he returned to Germany it was to her the dreadful news that his sister Fanny had died suddenly, of a stroke. She died while directing rehearsals of her brother’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht, aged just 41. Felix himself was only 38. When he eventually returned to Berlin and visited his sister’s former home he suffered a complete collapse, from which he never fully recovered. He worked on this sixth quartet, but then himself died on November 4th 1847, having suffered two strokes. The quartet was premiered one year after his death in Leipzig in November 1648. The work is permeated by his anger and sense of loss at Fanny’s death, as well as by his inescapable sense that his own death could not be far in the future.
The result is, as suggested above, quite unlike the common conception of Mendelssohn’s work. The characteristic Mendelssohnian grace and urbanity are repeatedly and insistently fractured (at times to, and well beyond, the point of destruction) by the sheer explosive power of the composer’s emotion. The first movement is full of concentrated fury. The sort-of-scherzo which follows (in truth a kind of parodic anti-scherzo) seems to screw up the emotions even further, the rhythms of some passages suggesting a kind of personified Death on horseback closely pursuing his prey. Even the slow movement is full of a kind of half-hearted nostalgia, of potentially comforting memories which the composer can’t quite bring himself to believe in or find comforting. The last movement is passionately restless, with only brief attempts (notably from the first violin) to move the music to some stable point of repose. But such efforts are swallowed up by the propulsively syncopated onrush of the writing which surrounds them.
Although I was very favourably impressed by the preceding performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet, this reading of Mendelssohn’s Sixth was finer still, its intensity and power showing the Allegri Quartet at its very best. From the tremolos of the opening allegro, above which the first violin proposes a concise theme, terse to the point of near non-utterance, and the aptly grinding rhythms in much of the first movement, right through to the very end of the fourth movement the listener was gripped and held by a compelling performance. The whole reading was couched in an idiom I can only describe as elegance in the process of explosion, as classical ‘forms’ were articulated, though entirely and harrowingly devoid of the kind of ‘matter’ one might have expected to find inhabiting them. The relative ‘beauty’, in conventional terms, of the third movement always had an acidic quality and even the almost peaceful moment at the close of this movement retained an anguished tension, a feeling of peace of mind just escaping the grasp. Any sense of true ‘release’ was avoided in the final movement. The whole was as much exhausting as exhilarating, as draining as grief itself. This was music possessed by an emotional rawness quite at odds with the kind of suavity usually associated with Mendelssohn. Perhaps because of this, this quartet was long underrated. I notice that in my 1930 edition of Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music this final quartet is dismissed with faint praise (?) by Wilhelm Altman: “This quartet, though written under the influence of Beethoven, fails to makes as strong an impression as the rest [of Mendelssohn’s quartets]”. Nowadays there are many of us who would suggest that in some respects this is actually the most interesting of Mendelssohn’s quartets, not the one that makes the weakest impression. One might suggest that it is later developments in String Quartet writing (not least that of Shostakovich) which have opened the ears of both performers and audiences to the merits and power of this last (and in many respects anomalous) quartet by Mendelssohn. It was, to put it mildly, astute programming to preface Opus 80 with a quartet by Shostakovich.
Founded as long ago as 1953, by violinist Eli Goren and cellist William Pleath, the Allegri Quartet has plausible claims to be Britain’s ‘oldest living’ chamber ensemble. The present incarnation of the quartet has been active since, I think, 2009, its individual members being, by my rough and ready reckoning, the fifth or sixth occupants of their respective instrumental chairs. The musicians who make up the current quartet are perhaps in their 40s or 30s (I hope I don’t insult any of the four by my guess), so they have both a great tradition to draw on, and relative youthfulness. They have played together long enough for absolute togetherness to be an established habit, but not so long that anything gets taken for granted. Those who grew up enjoying and admiring the work of earlier versions of the Allegri Quartet should, if they haven’t already done so, make every effort to hear the present group. They uphold the high standards of their predecessors and also have valuable things of their own to say.