The Carducci Quartet’s Magnificent Tribute to Shostakovich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Shostakovich. The Carducci Quartet [Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)], Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 9.8.2015. (RW)

Shostakovich – String Quartets 1-15

Shostakovich died on 9 August 1975, and the Carducci Quartet is already deep into its ‘Shostakovich 15’ project. In 2015 they are playing ten complete cycles of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, in the UK and abroad, including this whole day devoted to the complete cycle at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in London on the exact fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death.

I imagine many chamber music and Shostakovich lovers might have balked at this prospect – the small venue was about 90 per cent full, with slight variations through the day. They might have reasoned that the £10 the Globe was asking for the Carducci’s superb Signum disc of quartets 4, 8 and 11 (review ~ review) was a better bet. But in fact, given the initial commitment required of time and cost – over £100 for many of the seats, though that is not unreasonable for four full-length chamber concerts – it worked well. These works fit neatly into four concerts of similar length, and the cycle is particularly well suited to a straight numerical and chronological treatment (no annoying mis-numberings like the Beethoven piano concertos or Schumann symphonies).

Thus we heard Quartets 1-4 at 11 a.m., 5-8 at 2 p.m., 9-12 at 5 p.m., and 13-15 at 8 p.m. Each concert had a 15-minute interval and there were gaps of about 50 to 80 minutes between each concert.  Thus we could refresh body and mind and renew concentration levels, yet still maintain momentum. Nearing the end there was a certain elation and camaraderie, audience members urging each other on like trench warfare veterans – “one last push” said a stranger to me as we returned to our seats after the final interval.

Of course the musicians needed those breaks also, and there was much audience talk of amazement at the sheer stamina and musical focus the Carducci Quartet brought to this huge undertaking. Given recent news on the sports pages, there was even some dark speculation in the later breaks about their possible use of banned substances, enabling the marathon to be completed. But these splendid players sounded at all times as if they were sustained purely by this magnificent music itself, which is still, after all, the most effective of all mind-altering substances.

From the folk-inspired First Quartet to the rarefied Fifteenth with its sequence of six adagios, the Carducci had the full measure of all this varied music. Their qualities as an ensemble are well known by now, and this cycle needs them all. First and most fundamental, they have an unerring sense of the right tempo. True the music is a central part of the chamber music repertoire these days and performing traditions are well established, at least up to Quartet number twelve. But the tempi still have to be made to sound spontaneous and right for the occasion and the space the musicians are in; this was achieved. Also the Carducci are not afraid of the extreme tempi the composer sometimes asks for, whether fast or slow. Both extremes are challenging: the joyous coda of the First Quartet was dispatched with dazzling aplomb and accuracy, and the slow moving music of the last quartets still had a crucial sense of just barely perceptible flow. “Play it so that the flies drop dead in midair and the audience leaves out of sheer boredom” advised the composer about the Fifteenth. In the Wanamaker both the bipeds and the winged creatures stayed just where they were while that music gripped us.

Dynamics must also need some adjustment in this space, where the audience is so close. A rehearsal clip on their website shows the Carducci rehearsing for this event in situ, but in the empty Playhouse it sounds moderately reverberant. Once the bodies were in, it perhaps became drier. This might account for a sense that, brilliantly as the first four quartets were played, much of the playing sounded mezzo forte. Indeed the compelling opening of the Fourth Quartet, which after its insouciant start so rapidly screws up the tension, had the rafters ringing. In the following concerts the players seemed to sense they could dare to use quieter dynamics and still be heard at the top of the place. The sudden drop from a frantic forte to a thread of whispered pianissimo in the second movement of the Eighth Quartet was an electrifying moment and one not replicable in every auditorium. The many Jewish folk elements were really well characterized whenever they occurred in the cycle, bringing the rustic eastern sounds of the shtetl into the synagogue-like candlelit warmth of the unique Wanamaker Playhouse.

Rhythmic flair, so essential in Russian music generally, was in plentiful supply not least in the emphatic handling of the many instances across these works of Shostakovich’s compulsive rhythmic tics, like the insistent anapaests that open the eastern-flavoured theme of the Fourth’s finale, as well as the swift Rossinian ones of its scherzo and of the Allegretto of the Ninth. There is often a frantically driven quality to these works, at least in the early and middle ones, which the Carducci Quartet relished, generating great excitement by a combination of swift tempi, precise articulation and strict metrical control, such that the close of a couple of the fast movements brought a whoop of delight as the audience increasingly became part of the whole experience. As an audience we came to spectate, but ended wanting to participate.

It is well known that Shostakovich reacted to the individual qualities of players within the Beethoven Quartet, the group who premiered all these works after the first of them. This, and his frequent use of solo recitative, gave members of the Carducci Quartet opportunities to display their skill and sensitivity, and they did not disappoint. That the leader, Matthew Denton, is a fine artist was clear in the first concert, when his vibrato-rich (hooray!) and long emotional solo in the Adagio of the Second Quartet was very affecting. His dexterity in many a rapid passage was impressive all day too, though his colleagues lacked nothing in panache when required to echo him in the Seventh Quartet. The violist Eoin Schmidt-Martin in the Thirteenth, and cellist Emma Denton in the Fourteenth (and when opening the Twelfth), both showed what beguiling and burnished colours are available to the lower instruments, and both made the twelve-note rows they announce sound more inviting than forbidding. Second violin Michelle Fleming began the last quartet of all with a solo of exquisite poise and poignancy, launching that opening Elegy of the Fifteenth into a breathless hush that suggested we had ceased to be an audience, but had rather become co-celebrants at a rite of passage, forty years to the day after the composer left us.

The Carducci had many of these quartets in their repertoire prior to this project, and added several of the later ones specifically for ‘Shostakovich 15’. Yet no-one present would have guessed that, for they sounded as if they had played all these works all their lives. For many of the grey-haired in the audience (like me), the long-distant UK live or broadcast premieres of these late works, back when the Soviet context was still a reality, were among the great musical events of our younger days, even if the bleakness bewildered us at first. But to hear them together at the end of the whole cycle gave us a new perspective. Yes of course there is much haunted and haunting slow music, but somehow this death-shrouded art ultimately became life affirming. It was as if we had heard one enormous string quartet, well over six hours long, with numbers Twelve to Fifteen a vast and transfiguring coda.

Perfection is not to be looked for in such a long sequence of live music, of course, and some moments, especially a few of those scary bat-squeak high harmonics, will be retaken if they recur when the Carducci record numbers Twelve, Thirteen and Fourteen next year, and complete the cycle for Signum in coming years, as they intend. But the main caveat of the day was nothing to do with the musicians. The Globe’s programme booklet was quite inadequate for such an event, with only a short overview of Shostakovich’s quartet-writing career and no notes at all on the specific works or their background, beyond the (often teasing) movement titles. Fortunately, Matthew Denton gave short (and witty) introductory talks that plugged some of those gaps. But several people said they were flying blind and would have liked a few more signposts.  

Although it is still possible to see the Carducci described as a young group, they will in fact celebrate 20 years together in 2017 – with a Beethoven cycle. But there is still time to hear them in these works as this ‘Shostakovich 15’ project takes the cycle to Aldeburgh, (26 & 27 September), Cardiff (3 & 4 October), Cork (5-8 November) and Washington DC (15 & 22 November). But if you really want to silence those of us still droning on about what we heard at the Globe, you could – if you hurry – always counter with “Oh yes, I caught up with them in South America” (Neiva, Colombia 19-22 August). If you can’t get to any of those concerts, seek out that Signum disc, which is a real gem and the selection of works (4, 8, 11) ideal as a taster. When they complete the set (one hopes in time for their 2017 anniversary), it will surely become one of the leading versions of a now much-recorded cycle, such is their identification – and by now close familiarity – with this music.

At the Wanamaker, as the astonishing, time-suspending Fifteenth quartet ended morendo (a final marking shared with nine of the other fourteen), silence followed for several solemn and hushed moments before the deserved ovation and elation swelled forth – the players later said they were elated too, both by the reception and the sense of growing communion with the audience. As we trailed out into the summer night, still buoyed up by this great music and a unique experience, someone was heard to say, apparently without irony, “What a pity he didn’t write more quartets.” This garnered him a few quizzical looks from those who needed release from the Globe’s backless benches, but one sensed what he meant. We had been in a world we were somehow reluctant to leave. We were still reluctant to relinquish this universe, which is not one of unrelieved bleakness. It’s also one of sorrow for sure (funeral marches), of equivocal dancing (sardonic waltzes), of terror (violent scherzos), of graphic imagery (falling bombs, nocturnal knocks on the door), of innocence and beauty (often soon undermined), and of love and friendship (eloquent moments specifically for dedicatees); in other worlds the mirror of all our lives.

Thank you, Carducci Quartet, and thank you, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.

Roy Westbrook

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