Philharmonia Quartett Berlin at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, January 24, Jane Mallett Theatre

With each bow stroke, you could feel Shostakovich taking hold of a piece of his life and letting it go. The Quartet No.15, in E-flat Minor, Op.144, that Shostakovich wrote a year before he died of a long illness, is his requiem, and when the performance dissolved into space, it was as if his life went with it.

There was hearty applause for the synchronous artistry of these four section heads of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world, but nothing like the ovation that followed their offering, after intermission, of Beethoven’s third ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet in C, Op. 59.No. 3, an extraverted, assertive, exuberant composition. The Beethoven relieved the audience of the problem of how to express joyful praise of a first rate ensemble after immersing us in six adagio movements of Shostakovich’s personal anguish and cosmic sadness.

The six movements are all very slow, played without stop, relying on basic repeated rhythmic patterns, with the melody of some parts, like the second violin in the ‘elegy’, or the cello in the ‘intermezzo’, consisting of a single note, repeated or sustained for a long time. There is also a lot of material that is introduced, repeated, mulled over, and summarized, especially in the final movement.

Shostakovich’s instruction to the Tanayev Quartet that premiered the work may be the only bit of humour connected to the piece. He is reported to have said,” Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”

Adagio is my tempo of choice, as it happens, and this was a feast of sadness, protracted to abundance, a requiem to “beauty that must die, And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu.” The Quartett Berlin were playing out a great truth, with perfect unity in their strokes, a glowing, pulsing sureness, and rich unisons. The ‘Epilogue’ concludes with the Quartett members playing so lightly it is as if the music were insubstantial as the smoke of a single stick of incense dissolving into the petals of a rose.

The players are: Daniel Stabrawa and Christian Stadelmann, violins; Resa Neithard, viola; and Jan Diesselhorst, cello.

Comments are closed.