Dmitri Shostakovich (wiki, handle with care) was born in 1906, thus, the 100th anniversary of his death is celebrated this year.
Last night, I heard a performance of the last three string quartets by the Emerson String Quartet in the Chamber Music Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the summer quarters of the Boston Symphony.
It was a revelation!
In 1937, after his partial “rehabilitation” by composing the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich felt he could seek an outlet in composing chamber music, a class of music frowned upon by the Soviet government as too elitist. While not limiting himself to strings, he set out to compose 24 string quartets – one in each key, but managed to write only 15, the last one in 1974, the year before his death. All were written for the Beethoven Quartet, the Betkhoventsy, and only the last one, the 15th, was premiered by the Taneyev Quartet because the Betkhoventsy’s cellist passed away during rehearsals.
What is interesting, and I believe unusual, or at least a novelty at the time, is that Shostakovich composed fairly lengthy solo parts for the players.
The 13th is written in one long movement of three parts; the 14th, composed when Shostakovich visited Benjamin Britten, and a happier one, in a three movement format; but the 15th has six slow adagio movements, short and musically interrelated, to the extent that I mistook an earlier movement for the one titled “Funeral March.” In the 13th, the players are sometimes required to strike the deck of the instrument with the wood of the bow. Shostakovich has given no explanation for this, but it is striking in it's effect.
The Emerson Quartet, who played with verve and concentration – and standing except for the cellist who sat on a podium – is performing all fifteen quartets during this anniversary year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the inevitable CD! This was a fairly brief concert for the Emerson: I remember a performance some 15 years ago at the same place, when they played all six string quartets of Bartok. Most of the audience left after the fourth, I made it through the fifth, but by then I was mentally exhausted…
BTW, another composer’s anniversary is observed this year: the 250th year of Mozart’s birth. On Saturday night, there will be a concert performance of “Don Giovianni,” conducted by that opera specialist James Levine, the BSO’s new music director. Stay tuned!
For tonight, I happened on a free ticket for Shakespeare’s Hamlet…cultura all the way…