Igor Levit plays Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues at the Barbican review *****

Igor Levit

Barbican Hall, 26th January 2020

Dmitri Shostakovich – 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87

If you going to be inspired by anyone to write a monumental piano piece than JS Bach is a good place to start, specifically his Well Tempered Clavier collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues. Like Bach DSCH created a purely musical structure, with no explicit or implicit narrative or meaning. Unlike Bach he did not adhere to a strict arrangement of parallel major/minors pairs ascending the chromatic scale, though all the keys of the scale are represented as both free-form prelude (like Chopin’s Op 28) and strucured fugue, and follow the logic of the circle of fifths (again like Chopin). However these vary in mood, pace, length and complexity, some barely a minute long, others like the rolling no 16 fugue (easily confused by me for a prelude) runs to 10 minutes, some, like fugue no 9 for just two voices, whilst no 13 is a dazzling five. DSCH refers to, and quotes from, JSB at various points (as well as other Baroque tropes) to amplify the debt, and, of course, this wouldn’t be DSCH if he didn’t quote himself at times.

The work was composed in winter 1950/51 after DSCH had attended a Bach musical festival in Leipzig where he judged the piano competition won by his compatriot the 26 yo Tatiana Nikolayeva. Inspired and impressed DSCH dedicated 24 P&F to her and she premiered the work publicly in Leningrad in 1952. Prior to this DSCH had to get it through the Union of Composers who predictably managed to find fault, thinking it glum and morbid, viewing the fugue as a Western, archaic form and objecting to the dissonance in many of the episodes. Still there was now only a year or so to go before Stalin died and the pressure on DSCH started to lift.

The benchmark recording, from Hyperion, is by Ms Nikolayeva herself, who, even after she was able to travel to the West, pretty much exclusively focussed on Bach and DSCH, with a bit of Beethoven thrown in. On fact it was the very last piece she played just before her death in 1992. She recorded the work in its entirety on three other occasions and others had since had a pop at it, Ashkenazy, Donohoe, Konstantin Scherbakov, even Keith Jarrett, but, because of its length, demands and style, many have also avoided it, or just recorded a selection (Richter and old Dmitri himself though plainly not because he hadn’t mastered it!). I had be looking to acquire the recent recording by Alexander Melnikov for whom I have an inordinate amount of time, but, after this astonishing interpretation from Igor Levit I might wait to see if he commits piano to recording studio.

There are those who diss DSCH’s P&F as just sketches for his larger scale works, yeah like which composer doesn’t have an overarching sound, or as just pastiche Bach. Plainly bollocks and maybe reflecting the fact that it hasn’t been oft recorded and requires a deal of effort and concentration from performer. Like I say the extracts I have heard Mr Melnikov play impressed but hearing the whole thing, near three hours even before a couple of intervals, was extraordinary. IL has a penchant for big, structured, piano works, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Ronald Stevenson’s 80 minute uninterrupted Passacaglia on DSCH, yep dedicated to you know who, and I was confident from hearing his way with Beethoven that I would likely enjoy this. But even so I was massively surprised by just how much detail and emotion he brought out in the music, to se alongside its obvious intellect, power and character.

Mr Levit has a big fan club amongst those that know and it isn’t difficult to see why. Hunched over the keyboard, all coiled intensity, fingers flashing, pounding keys, limiting use of the pedals, (though the stage floor took a n occasional pounding) which made the polyphony at times even more remarkable, building and then resolving tension, the architecture of each P&F articulated but without losing sight of the details. From the tranquil C major opening through to the triumphant, with caveat, D major final pairing, I was knackered by the end so goodness how drained IL felt. It must have taken a few glasses of Margaux to come down from that.

I don’t hold with this standing ovation nonsense for anything seen on stage. This time though no question. For exceptional artistry as well as phenomenal stamina.

Britten and Shostakovich: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano)

Barbican Hall, 31st October 2019

  • Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
  • Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 2,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6

Right if I am ever to catch up I am going tp have to be ruthless. So this is just for me and just for the sake of completeness.

Britten’s Sea Interludes showed off the colour and virtuosity of the LSO sections and included the Passacaglia where the Borough Brexiteers go after Peter, but wasn’t quite as atmospheric or as unified as some interpretations I have heard (and trust me, much like the Shostakovich here, I have heard a few). More Southwold than Aldeburgh. Still in getting to the darker recesses of the opera itself this was a success.

Prokofiev’s PC No 2 is, by reputation, an absolute bastard to play. Denis Matsuev showed me why in what is, apparently, his party piece. For a big fella he can move his hands, which he needs to, from one end to the other, extravagant crossing in the opening two movements. It was a manly reading, I could imagine Martha Argerich say covering the immense and inventive ground that SP, a mean tinkler of the ivories himself, demands, in a much more graceful way, but this was still a tremendous introduction to a piece, along with the other 4 SP created, that I need to do more work on. These abrupt shifts of mood and idea, the relegation of the orchestra to support act or even lower on the bill, the fact that after a massive opening movement and a ludicrously quick moto perpetuo second, there is no let up in the third, a mechanistic march. And then the forth kicks off again with the piano as percussion thing. Until, of course this being Prokofiev it turns, into, of all things, a folksy Russian jig.

SP originally wrote it in 1913. He left Russia in 1918, though famously, and bullishly, returned, and the original score was destroyed in a fire. So he reconstructed and revised it in 1924. Which maybe. in part, explains why it still sounds so, well, special and unique.

I have heard 4 and 8 of Gianandrea Noseda’s survey of the DSCH symphonies prior to this. This was equally as accomplished if occasionally lacking a little in astringency. No 6 is nuts. After the crowd pleasing, match winner of No 5, which got him back, temporarily in Stalin’s good books, he set out to “communicate feelings of spring happiness and youth”. Usual DSCH deadpan irony. After a sub 20 minute Largo, which feels longer, there is an Allegro galop and finally a rowdy Presto finale. Three movements. All over in half an hour.

What was he up to? Well listen more closely and you hear that, far from wandering off piste again, DSCH was actually very much toe-ing the Classical line. Almost all the material in the opening movement is derived Bach-like from the opening few bars, with clear signposts, from cor anglais, trumpet and harps amongst others, and a second half sonata form set up. The second movement is contrapuntal, more like the fast movements in the later string quartets than anything in other DSCH’s other symphonic manic dances, with a groovy clarinet solo. And the Finale, if you squint your eyes, (or whatever the aural equivalent is), could be Beethoven or even Mozart, an upbeat Rondo to get the feet tapping. Well maybe not quite. Certainly Rossini with another of those gnomic William Tell quotations. My guess is that, even if the thought police had got to work on his fingernails, Dmitri himself wouldn’t have know if he was taking the piss or playing it straight here.

The LSO seemed more on the ball in the symphony than the concerto, perhaps unsurprising given they have been round the block a few times now with GN but, if I am honest, it was the Prokofiev that had most impact. I am getting closer to cracking him I think and Mr Matsuev’s literally banging way as a soloist floated my boat.

Leningrad (No 7) next up though the Tourist won’t be there, (sold out I see which is a good thing) then No 9 (which never gets an airing and it a close cousin of No 6).

P.S. The photo above shows SP and DS in 1940. The fella with the Eraserhead cut is Aram Khachaturian, who, amazingly given the relative safety of his grooves managed to be denounced as a “formalist” along with his two mates, though not for long.

Prom 15, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra review *****

Prom 15 – Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) 

Royal Albert Hall, 30th July 2019

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5 

It always surprises just how few Proms concerts tick all the boxes for the Tourist. I can usually only manage 4 or 5 in the season. Partly this reflects holiday and other clashes, and this year I was a few hours late out of the block when booking opened, (so missing the Voces8 and English Concert gigs at Cadogan Hall and the first Vienna Phil Beethoven/Bruckner with Haitink conducting), but mostly it stems from the preponderance of Romantic repertoire and the relative absence of Early/Baroque/Classical in the programming. If you like the likes of Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Strauss and Sibelius you were, as usual, in your element this year. If this is not your cup of tea a more judicious approach is called for. Mind you. This suits me in a way as, (whisper it), the dear old Albert Hall isn’t my favourite gaff even if the sound is never quite as bad as you might fear up in the Raising Circle where the Tourist perches.

So for me this concert was the one stand-out in the season. Beethoven 2, Shostakovich’s 10th, with the BRSO, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, which runs close to being the best orchestra in the world right now. Hold up chum I hear you say. Mariss Jansons? Shos 10? That’s not what it says above. Well no. Mr Jansons was ordered to take time off over the summer by his docs though it looks like he will be back in the saddle in Munich for the new season, (and maybe he will keep his mouth shut about female representation in music in future). Fortunately for Prommers and those at the Salzburg festival Yannick Nezet-Seguin was able to step in at short notice and his facility with Shostakovich was sufficient to see the 5th replaced the 10th. Which was no great disappointment.

Especially in an interpretation as powerful as this. Now the Tourist has had to wait a few years to witness the conducting, (or indeed pianistic), prowess of French-Canadian YN-S. Never heard the Rotterdam Phil when he was head honcho and am not about to jet over to the Met in NYC or Philadelphia to hear his current troupes. Also never heard the Chamber Orchestra of Europe where he guest conducts and always missed him a few years ago when he still did the same for the LPO. And judging by his discography there aren’t too many orchestral works where our paths might cross. But Shostakovich is clearly one, and, based on this Beethoven 2, it is also clear to me that I need to find a way to hear him lead a Mozart opera.

I am not smart enough to understand why certain conductors and orchestras lift music to another level. But I think I know when I hear it. The BRSO under MJ massively persuaded me with a Prokofiev 5 at the Barbican a couple of years ago. Their playing is powerful, accurate and precise. This was clear in the leisurely reading of the Beethoven Second. Easy on the vibrato, HIP style, but still with a foot firmly planted in the Romantic, focussed on the individual building blocks of the symphony though not utterly convincing on the whole. No 2 can be, shall we say, forgettable compared to what can after, but, in the right hands, is still a work of genius, especially the opening and closing movements.

It took a little time for LvB to bring it to together, interrupted by commissions and by encroaching deafness, and was largely written at Heiligenstadt, but, as is often remarked, you wouldn’t know about LvB’s personal travails from listening to this. The first movement Adagio-Allegro can’t match the Eroica in scale but it does signpost LvB’s future direction of travel. The Allegro wanders off to B flat before wending its way back to the D major home key and the rising scale of the allegro couldn’t be simpler but sets the tone for the surprisingly jolly vibe which pervades the work. The Larghetto, also in sonata form similarly doesn’t spend too long in the darkness, though its woodwind burbling does slightly overstay its welcome, and the following Scherzo and Trio movement marks the first use of the “joke” in a major symphony. The Allegro finale starts off like a classic LvB rondo but then develops into something far more musically complex and is dominated by rapid string passages. Immediately appealing, but satisfyingly clever, like all the symphonies which were to follow.

So a solid start. But it was the Shostakovich which really showed what this band and conductor can do. Given his opera jobs I suspect it may have been a little while since YN-S last tackled the Fifth but it is a work he knows well. And the BRSO certainly does. The complete Shostakovich cycle recording on EMI conducted by MJ may not, individually be best in class, but the 2, 3, 4, 12, 13, 14 versions on this set made with BRSO come close, and, at 20 quid, the cycle is a steal. I confess I prefer Haitink overall when it comes to DSCH, but also have versions of some of the symphonies from Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture SO and Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool PO (whose complete set is also a bargain). And I would snap up a set of Kondrashin recordings should this ever return based on what the experts say.

The point is that whilst super smooth Shostakovich should be avoided, the extreme of the hardcore Russian approach does take a bit of getting used to. Extremes of anger, aggression, pain and pathos, are what these works are all about, and it is right that interpretations test the patience of the listener, whether it be in the bleak never ending slow movements, the sardonic scherzos or the melodramatic, ambiguous, opening and closing movements.. Whatever you think about what DSCH was actually trying to say in his music it definitely needs an edge, even if you end up concluding that it is sub-Mahlerian, film-music bombast as many have done. I love it but it is undeniably music of edge, effect, emotion and image, mixing high and low brow, light years away from the musical maths of a Bach or Stravinsky.

What it does need to convince however is perfect playing. Forgive the thoughts of this musical dummy but f you have a lot of instruments playing the same thing, or single instruments soloing over a sparse backdrop, then you need the players to be exact. DSCH does not forgive imprecision. The BRSO, perhaps more than any other outfit, move as one. Which means that all the “effects”, the fear, brutality, solace, the bright lights, the shadows, were perfectly executed. DSCH symphonies all, at least from 5 to 13 (1,2,3 are the avant garde formal experiments, 14 and 15 defiantly personal), conjure up images of war and terror and the capacity of humankind to overcome even if, like the Fifth, they came before WWII. But to pull together the passages in the movements to simulate the march of history, and then to lay on top the ironic detachment that, I think, DSCH sought, the last movement of No 5 being archetypical, requires conducting and playing of real skill. That’s what we got here. The sheen was there, no doubt, as were the debts to Mahler and Stravinsky in the phrasing, but this was also properly aggressive and emotional when it needed to be.

The Fifth is, I would assume, the most oft-performed of DSCH’s symphonies meaning the dangers of over-familiarity loom even larger. How to capture the thrill and surprise of the music without getting lazy? How to balance the ostensible formal conservatism of the four movements in DSCH’s “Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism” with the probing, questioning and cynicism which seems, even if this is wishful thinking on our part, to lie beneath? YN-S and the BRSO did not avoid echoing the folk tunes, festive dances and grandiose anthems that punctuate the work to meet Soviet requirements nor did they try too hard to subvert the “uplifting” coda to the finale as it turns from D minor to major. Nor did they over-reach in the still, hovering episodes of the opening movement which punctuate the aggressive tutti climaxes, nor in the heart-rending third movement Largo chant, (with some ear-strainingly quiet pianissimos), nor in the perverted waltz of the Allegretto. They just let it speak for itself. Whether as classic symphonic journey, as testament to the struggle of the Soviet people to escape oppression or as satirical indictment of the dread inflicted by Stalin and his regime. Or just as music which, whilst maybe too obvious and precipitate, immediately connects. As was very clear from the eruption of applause when finally the timpani and bass drum sounded out their last, immense, booms.

A bit of Mussorgsky for an encore. Dawn on the Moscow River from Kovanshchina. Arranged by guess who. Shostakovich.

Like I said. There are surprisingly few Proms that do it for me. But, just like last year and the BPO’s Beethoven 7 under Kirill Petrenko, I reckon I heard the pick of the season. (BTW sounds like Mr Petrenko means business kicking off the BPO season with what sounded like a belting Choral Symphony and serving up a diet of, unsurprisingly, Beethoven and Mahler in the first half of next year. I get the BPO will be glad to see the back of Rattle’s excursions into Rameau and Bernstein. Anyway the Tourist feels a trip to Berlin coming on).

Piano trio and percussion at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)

Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
  • Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)

OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.

The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.

Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.

The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.

So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite

Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place review *****

Brodsky Quartet, In Time of War

Kings Place, 18th November 2018

  • Karen Tanaka – At the grave of Beethoven
  • Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No 1
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8
  • Dave Brubeck – Regret
  • George Crumb – Black Angels

It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.

Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo. 

Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11. 

Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.

The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No  as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.

Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?

Emerson String Quartet at Milton Court review ****

The Emerson String Quartet

Milton Court Concert Hall, 8th November 2018

  • Britten – String Quartet No 3, Op 94
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
  • Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”

You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation. 

So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.

In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.

The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.

Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO. 

The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace. 

After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these). 

As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.

The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).

Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub. 

The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a  repeated rocking motif.

This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.

The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle. 

As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.

That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).

While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire.