Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 13, presented by Music Toronto.

An evening that has a performance of Shostakovich in it is a good evening. Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc, Music Toronto’s quartet-in-residence this season, gave a refreshing account of the “String Quartet No. 4 in D. Op.83.

This quartet was composed in 1949, while Shostakovich was enduring official censure for his “formalist distortions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people.” It is said he sought refuge from depression by working on this quartet. Shostakovich chose to delay its release until 1953, 8 months after the dictator’s death.

We hear, after a richly lyrical opening by two violins in unison, the low register strings set up a drone that grinds like a murmuring crowd being worked up and down by news of daily impositions. One feels an odd sadness, like witnesses at the funeral of a stranger.

The mood of the ‘Andantino’ is also subdued, relieved by a lyrical note of yearning for a better life. This brings a feeling of commiseration with a vast melancholy that is carried in waves on the outpouring of Ryan Molzan’s cello.
The two final movements, played as one, introduce an edgy, pulsing, busy, metropolitan sound, complex and impersonal as traffic. The Arthur-Leblanc bring a lightened-up touch to the work, making it more easily bearable than the anguished Borodin account.

The linked final ‘Allegretto’ rises on a Jewish folk-song theme towards an energetic conclusion that suggests a positive social vision before the personal returns in an eerily high passage that glances back to the first movement, as the first violin shrills against a slow, sustained cello pizzicato and their combined voices fade out.

The same light touch, somewhat dramatized and impassioned, drove their performance of Schubert’s “Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, known as “Death and the Maiden.” The annunciatory pair of opening chords á la Beethoven flow in soft rhythms towards the verge of melody. The movement seems to be about the contrast lyric and turbulent feelings.

The second movement is a set of variations based on a theme Schubert wrote for a song he called “Death and the Maiden”, based as it was on a text of a dialogue between a young woman and ‘Death’ who woos her successfully into his arms. The playing here is graceful rather than morbid, and catches fire in the final variations as a bridge to the driving syncopations of the brief ‘Scherzo’.

The ‘Finale’ reflects the cyclical strategy of this period of Schubert’s work, repeating the turbulent rhythms of the first movement in a dance tempo that is a bit more cheerful than the notion of Death dancing off the stage with the maiden in his arms.

The evening ended as it began, with a surprise. The first one was André Prévost’s “Vivace” movement of his first string quartet (1958). This is a work of Shostakovian complexity and irony, full of varied textures, densities, glissandos, and dissonant swirls and percussive sonics. The encore was an energetic “Tango” by Astor Piazzolla.

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