The Third String Quartet of Shostakovich shares the neo-Classical bent of his Ninth Symphony, composed a year earlier. The balanced, Mozartean phrases of their opening movements sound as odd as can be for music emerging from the ruins of World War II, when Soviet artists of the era were on the steps of another round of bureaucratic abuse. The string quartet shares a few other traits with the symphony, including a doleful movement and another cast as an unhinged dance. They both have five movements, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim claimed was reserved for his “greatest and most serious compositions.”
Shostakovich completed the string quartet in August 1946, at his state-supplied dacha in Komarova, a small town that was a popular spot for summer vacations. It starts with a carefree, jaunty theme, which gives way to a darker melody that wanders seemingly aimlessly before being sliced off midstream. The quartet largely keeps with Classical-era formality, ending with a properly strong cadence. The second movement opens up new territory with a motorically rising accompaniment, providing support for a jagged melody. Shostakovich’s tone is stern and angry, but the sort of anger that keeps its actions in check.
The third movement boils over with slashing chords at the outset, followed by one of Shostakovich’s macabre minor-key dances. The fourth is a series of mournful passages, each with its own melancholy sound. Mystery pervades the final movement, as the searching melodies pass around each other slowly. The mystery isn’t dispelled by the end, as a high violin drifts away, far above a placid accompaniment. According to the violist who gave the quartet’s premiere, the Beethoven Quartet’s Fyodor Druzhinin, this quartet led to one of Shostakovich’s rare public displays of emotion for his own music: “When we finished playing, he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face.”
Rudolf Barshai has been a lifelong proponent of Shostakovich’s music, first as his composition student; later as a violist in the Borodin Quartet, which premiered several of Shostakovich’s string quartets; and then as a conductor. Barshai led the first performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in 1960 and recorded all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the Cologne Radio Orchestra. He’s orchestrated several of Shostakovich’s quartets, and the winds, harp and timpani he added to the Third are fully in keeping with the composer’s intent. The lonely flute heard prominently in the middle of the second movement was a favorite Shostakovichian sound and the bassoon at the end of the fourth movement echoes a similar bassoon solo from the Ninth Symphony, heard just one year before. Sadly, political machinations in 1948 would cause much of Shostakovich’s music to be pulled from circulation.
Marc Geelhoed ©2010
In 1803, Beethoven famously declared: “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.” The same year saw the completion of the Eroica Symphony, unofficially launching the composer’s celebrated “heroic” period. Over the following decade, Beethoven produced music of unprecedented magnitude. It was also during this time that his worsening deafness became a personal crisis. Beethoven responded with music that was epic and defiant.
The famous solo piano introduction to the Fourth Piano Concerto immediately sets it apart from other signature “heroic” statements. In contrast to the vigorous opening salvos of the Fifth Symphony, Appassionata, et al., the Concerto begins with a gentle utterance: piano, dolce, searching yet at peace. This opening gesture ends in the dominant key of D major; the orchestra replies in distant B major, presaging the harmonic nuance that colors the entire work.
Despite the serenity of the opening, a close listen reveals the four-note, “Fate knocking at the door” rhythmic motif of the Fifth Symphony embedded into this first theme, three times in succession—the peaceful yang to the Symphony’s stormy yin. But in characteristically Beethovenian fashion (in this regard, sharing the Fifth’s genetic code), the material presented in these first five measures will be mined exhaustively. Those four repeated notes course through the movement.
The piano serves as the clear protagonist throughout, but the precise nature of the journey is elusive. The hero is strong in his stillness, somehow lacking—transcending—the visceral thrust of the Fifth. Indeed, the seemingly bemused, stream-of-consciousness quality of Beethoven’s hyper-virtuosic writing, aided by the delicate shading of his orchestration, is one of the Concerto’s miracles.
The pithy Andante con moto is an equally extraordinary creation to the first movement, but of a starkly different character. It is often described as depicting Orpheus in Hades, with the piano again the mythic hero, taming the Furies at the gates of hell. The soloist, alone, presents the movement’s turbulent climax: an anguished trill above descending chromatic cries.
From here, the Concerto proceeds posthaste to the galloping refrain of the bright Rondo finale, three-dimensionalized by a series of vivid episodes. The subtle refinement of Beethoven’s harmonic sensibility is on further display: the movement begins in C major, arriving at the home key of G barely in time for the work’s conclusion. Despite what seemed, at the Concerto’s outset, an unlikely heroic journey, the emergence from the tortured slow movement to this triumphant finale fully epitomizes Beethovenian heroism.
Though critically lauded in the May 1809 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung as “the most admirable, singular, artistic, and complex Beethoven concerto ever,” Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto went largely ignored in the years following the composer’s death. Felix Mendelssohn, the same music-historical hero who rescued Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion from neglect, revived interest in the Fourth Concerto, performing it on his final concert in London in 1846.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
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