On the whole, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) did not write pretty music. Tormented, terrifying, subversive and embittered, most definitely, but rarely ever pretty. His pieces are not devoid of beauty, it’s just that you have to wade through a lot of darkness to find it. Shostakovich is well known for his sarcasm and double meanings, so when a ray of sunshine does appear, you can never trust it. Often the sun’s warmth symbolizes the oppression of the Jews, the death of a loved one or the hypocrisy of Stalinist propaganda.
Shostakovich in small doses, contrasted with pieces that are a little less foreboding is entirely manageable but a full string quartet cycle such as the one presented last week by the Aviv Quartet at the Music Room requires a girding of loins almost unmatched in the chamber music repertoire.
Often symphony or string quartet cycles are just a collection of a single composer’s efforts in that genre, meaning there is not actual thematic link between the pieces like there is in a song cycle. While there no such link exists in Shostakovich’s quartets, he did conceive them as a cycle, aiming to write on in each key like Bach and Chopin did for keyboard. Including major and minor, there are 24 in the set but he only made it to fifteen before becoming too ill to continue. Spanning 36 years and varying in shade from partly cloudy to black tornadic storm, they are some of the most often played 20th century quartets.
Listening to 15 quartets in seven days means that the individual details of each piece are subsumed into the larger whole but the advantage of such intensive study is that you are able discover the nuances of the composer’s idiom. Hallmarks of Shostakovich’s quartet writing include extensive use of pizzicato; scoring the violins as a pair against the viola and cello; prominent use of the viola; short, repeated rhythmic motives and sardonic use of waltzes and marches.
Canadian cellist Rachel Mercer joining the Aviv Quartet in 2002 but the other three members, Sergei Ostrovsky (Violin I), Evgenia Epshtein (Violin II) and Shuli Waterman (Viola) have been playing together for 11 years. It shows.
The Aviv have a fantastic ensemble sound, distinctive in its robustness. Mercer’s cello growls on even the shortest notes while Epshtein can make her violin sound terrifying without getting out of control. Waterman had more than the usual number of chances to show her skill and musicality and she did not disappoint. Her sound is warm and full even in the upper register.
There are many moments in the cycle where Shostakovich trades in aggressiveness for unsettlingly bleak pianissimi. The Aviv took the decision to play without vibrato in these passages and although risky, it paid off in spades particularly when the violins were in the stratosphere.
On the rare occasions when prettiness was required, Ostrovsky was in his element, producing a sound that can only be described as an old-fashioned sweetness.
After such a monumental event, it seems unnecessary to point out flaws and even if I were in the mood to, there is little to choose from. Aside from occasional intonation slips, there was some sloppy ensemble pizzicati throughout the week however neither of these quibbles were a consistent problem and rarely distracted from the bigger picture.
In the quartets I knew well, the overall tempi were slower than expected however each time the Aviv made a strong case for a more relaxed pace.
One of the challenges of presenting a cycle, is deciding on the order of the pieces. Chronological seems the most logical but practically it doesn’t work. Trying to keep each concert at 120 minutes while making sure each individual concert is enjoyable requires a bit of juggling and every quartet has their own order. The Aviv chose to start with one and end with 15 but jumbled up the rest
In his pre-concert address, Ostrovsky said that although the quartet liked all of the pieces, 9 and 3 were Aviv favourites. For my money, the third evening with 6, 9 and 3 was the most balanced of the five nights.
This cycle was a big event for The Music Room the house was comfortably full each night. There were several regulars who attended each concert as well as sizeable cohort of newcomers.
As fantastic as the cycle was, it was a bit of a shame to hear the Aviv play only one part of the repertoire. A return visit to The Music Room with Brahms or Mozart on the program would be a treat indeed.