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St. Petersburg String Quartet Concert I

by William Thomas Walker

When second violinist David Chernyavsky prefaced the St. Petersburg String Quartet's December 4 performance with the comment that the musicians would at times be "playing four independent parts, often separated by different meters," I had a shuddering flashback from enduring Elliot Carter's Third Quartet decades ago. In the event, the Duke University Reynolds Theatre audience had a much more listener-friendly experience than the austere academic style I recalled. Georgian composer Zurab Nadarejshvili (b. 1957) draws upon folk elements — spirited dances — and Georgia's characteristic polyphonic choral tradition. His Quartet No. 1 (1983), which according to the composer "reflect(s) ... the emotional experience of the Georgian people during the period of Stalinism and World War II," is in three movements that have in common a fading into silence as each ends. Beginning with a dirge-like slowness, the first movement features a soulful chant-like theme, spun by the cello, that embodies mourning the victims of Stalinist tyranny. The fast second movement has a folk dance flavor and employs a wide range of unconventional techniques — high exposed notes, bowing close to the bridge, slapping the belly and sides of the instruments with the hands, slapping the strings with the back of the bow, etc. Here each player's part is a different motif at a different meter. The solemn mood of the first movement returns in the third, which features an extended mournful melody for the first violin — a wailing for the dead — after the introduction, with extended pizzicatos over a droning cello line. All the members of the St. Petersburg Quartet played with great virtuosity and profound musicianship. The balances were excellent, intonation was exemplary, even in the highest positions, the string tone was full and warm, and the phrasing was deeply communicative.

The centenary of Antonín Dvorák's death has brought a welcome variety to our concert halls, with unjustly neglected masterpieces being given an airing — a welcome break from a too-steady diet of the composer's popular "American" Quartet, Op. 96. Bubbling over with joy and gorgeous melodies, the composer's Quartet No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105, made a perfect foil for the St. Petersburg's other two selections, tinged with sorrow and tragedy. Ambivalence between melancholic and ebullient elements leavens the score. At times, there are echoes of the soundscape of the "New World" Symphony. The musicians' virtues, heard in the Nadarejshvili, were brought to bear in an interpretation that was as richly satisfying as it was glowing and heartfelt.

The ensemble was equally imaginative in its choice of Dmitry Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9 in E-flat, Op. 117 (1964), instead of the more often played Third Quartet or the Fifth or the Eighth. With many composed for what the composer called "the drawer," meant to be premiered in less repressive times, the string quartets contain some of Shostakovich's most personal music They deserve to be programmed with the same frequency as late Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartók. The Ninth, dedicated to Irina Antonovna, his third wife, reflects his happy marriage, and the overall mood of the quartet is cheerful by Shostakovich's standards. Its five movements are played without pause. The opening's light textures and bouncy rhythms are followed by chorale-like adagio that leads to an allegretto dominated by a jaunty polka that becomes wilder as it unfolds. (Its relentless drive reminds me of music written for a comic chase.) The second slow movement suggests the sound world of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which Shostakovich had recently re-orchestrated. Two-fifths of the quartet is taken up by the concluding allegro, which features a redevelopment of all the preceding material. The St. Petersburg players delivered it with astonishing intensity, deploying a wide palette of string techniques including dramatic pizzicatos, hairpin changes of meter or bowings, etc., thus meeting every demand of the score and fully delineating the emotional depth of the piece.

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