The Sarah Graham Recital Hall on Peace College campus was full. The audience was anticipatory. The musicians from the North Carolina Symphony; violinists Dovid Friedlander and Karen Strittmatter Galvin, violist David Marschall and cellist Peng Li were prepared and poised. After a brief introduction by Friedlander, he picked up his violin and bow and began to play a simple yet profoundly sorrowful tune. The second violin, the viola and the cello each joined in turn the outpouring of tears from the soul of Ludwig van Beethoven. For over eight minutes the first movement of the Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 held the audience spell-bound. Not a distracting sound or movement was noticed. The music connected with the inner experience of each individual. To me it poured forth tears for Japan and Libya, and all those around the world who are oppressed or grieved or suffering.
The second movement, a gentle dance in 6/8 time, brought some sunshine and perhaps a ray of hope. It was followed by the third movement of this seven movement work; a brief bridge to the monumental fourth movement. Here Beethoven takes us on an adventure that covers a vast scope of musical inventiveness: six variations on a theme and subtheme and part of a seventh. It includes key changes, tempo changes, mood changes, dynamic changes and more. It seems as though Beethoven caged by deafness, ill-health, frustration with his nephew and disappointment in love is saying I will not be caged by the conventions of tradition. I will be free. I will say what I must say. And what he has to say is amazing.
The fifth movement is a presto based on a rollicking theme that reminds me of children playing tag in a meadow. I wondered how long Beethoven kept this lively idea in his notebook before he put it to use here. It brought a smile to my face and feelings of deep appreciation for the artists who can make such music live so vibrantly.
The sixth movement adagio is another bridge leading to the opening of the final movement which returns back home to the tonic C sharp minor and is cast in traditional sonata form. The demands on the artists are huge. Beethoven has no mercy for the performer. All four artists are performing almost constantly throughout this exceptionally long work in this form. The exhaustion could be seen in the body language and sweat on the brow – but so could the pleasure and satisfaction. And the audience showed their pleasure with loud and sustained applause.
The second half of the concert provided the opportunity to hear from another composer known for his ability to communicate through his music his inner emotion and the outer turmoil surrounding his life. The Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 is one of the most well-known of the chamber works of Dimitri Shostakovitch. It was composed in 1940 and premiered in 1941. For this performance the quartet of strings was joined by guest pianist Christopher Taylor.
Much of Shostakovitch's life was lived on the edge of acceptance or disapproval of the Stalinist Soviet regime. In 1936 he was severely and publicly chastised especially for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Following this traumatic period many of Shostakovitch's works were seen as less than worthy and mere attempts to meet political approval. However, over time, approval and admiration of Shostakovitch's body of work has been solidly acclaimed. The later chamber works especially seem to have gained professional accolades even over the symphonies for their intimate language and bold expression.
One could compare the second movement of the Piano Quintet with the first movement of the Beethoven Op. 131. Both speak with heart-wrenching sadness and personal directness from the inner soul of the composer. The third movement Scherzo is comparable to Beethoven's Presto; a child's song full of carefree abandon. The last movement of the Shostakovitch Piano Quintet is a tour-de-force that hints, at least, toward the massive Seventh Symphony written in the same year this work was premiered.
Equally demanding as the Beethoven, the five artists on stage met the challenge of this work with superb craftsmanship and amazing interpretive perception. We are truly grateful to them for an evening of spiritual renewal and warmly satisfying pleasure. Nor can we neglect to acknowledge our debt to Peace College Alumna Sara Jo Manning for endowing the Manning Chamber Music Series.