Tuesday 16 December 2014

Shakespeare's Globe - London - 9th August 2015

On the 9th August 2015 - the 40th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death, we will commemorate the day with a 'once-in-a-lifetime' event - performing the complete quartets in one day!
The venue is the wonderful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe in London (pictured here).
We hope you'll join us on our epic journey! Tickets now on sale!

Concert 1 - 11:00-12:55 (inc. interval)
Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op.49
Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op.68
Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op.73
Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op.83
Concert 2 - 14:00-15:40 (inc. interval)
Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op.92
Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op.101
Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op.108
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op.110
Concert 3 - 17:00-18:55 (inc. interval)
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op.117
Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Op.118  
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op.122
Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op.133
Concert 4 - 20:00-21:20 (inc. interval)
Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op.138
Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Op.142
Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op.144

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Tuesday 4 November 2014

Quartet no.1

As we set off on tour to Germany and Holland (where our programmes will include Shostakovich's 1st quartet), we wanted to note down some of our thoughts about the work which will of course kick-off next year's complete cycles.
It was composed in the summer of 1938 when Shostakovich was 32. (Perhaps not as young as you'd expect for his first quartet!). It is often described as a 'spring-like' work and he said "I visualized childhood scenes, somewhat naïve and bright moods associated with spring."
It seems to us that this work is in many ways a new beginning for Shostakovich. In 1936 he fell out of official favour when Stalin attended a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth. The series of critical attacks that followed in Pravda led to a drop in Shostakovich's income by three quarters and he must have at times also feared for his own safety. The 1st quartet certainly seems to demonstrate a new kind of Russian neoclassicism which he perhaps hoped would help to rehabilitate himself in Soviet eyes.
The 1st movement opens with a feeling of calm benevolence and leads us via a flowing melody to a 2nd theme which is quirky and waltz-like. We can't escape the feeling though that behind the music there is still a sense of fear. This feeling also pervades the 2nd movement, which on the surface sounds like a simple folk-inspired melody. (It reminds us a little of the melancholy in Mendelssohn's op.13 Intermezzo). The 3rd movement is brighter, although skittish and nervous, with a wonderfully Viennese sounding trio section (rather like some of the music in Hugo Wolf's Italian serenade). The last movement full of energy and vigour is certainly in a 'spring-like' mood, with a virtuoso violin part and exhilarating ending which is great fun to play! Interesting that Shostakovich originally intended this to be the 1st movement, however the current 1st movement would have then been the finale, fading away with a sense of melancholy and fear. The work as a whole would have felt much less 'spring-like' and presumably therefore the Soviet authorities would have looked on it less favourably as a result...

Friday 4 July 2014

Quartet no.11

At the end of June 2014 we spent 3 days recording quartets 4,8 and 11. This was an intense and physically demanding experience that helped prepare us for 'Shostakovich15'!
The 11th quartet is an extraordinary and rather cryptic work in which Shostakovich departs from the usual 4 movement structure and instead writes 7 shorter movements (or 'minatures'), all played without a break. The titles, Introduction, Scherzo, Recitative, Etude, Humoresque, Elegy & Finale, only tell half the story. On first listening the work can sound sparse and disjointed, but perhaps this reflects the background of the quartet. It is dedicated to the memory of Vasily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet (who premiered most of Shostakovich's quartets). Vasily had been a great friend to Shostakovich and his death came as a severe shock. The quartet considered disbanding (they probably felt similarly disjointed at the time), but Shostakovich urged them to continue and wrote them this new quartet.

The 7 movements are bound together by a motif first introduced on the cello. The motif is based around one single note (an F#), and when playing it there is a sense that the music is trying to get going, only to fail time and time again. The titles of the movements often seem contradictory to their mood. The Scherzo feels far from happy or light and quickly evaporates until all that remains is a low held C in the viola. Similarly, the Humoresque, far from providing light relief, sees the second violin repeatedly mimicking a cuckoo call, perhaps a reference to the old Russian superstition that the number of calls represents the remaining years of life. The Elegy provides the emotional heart of the work and it is hard not to feel the fullness of the sense of loss. The second violin solo that leads into the Finale is played con sordino and is an echo of the first violin melody, as if Shirinsky's ghost is present. The quartet ends with the first violin holding a top c for almost 30 seconds and it can be interpreted in many ways; a ghostly note fading into oblivion, a spirit rising up on it's final journey or a distant cry of anguish and pain. However the last note is played, there is no escaping the immense effect Shirinsky's death had on those around him, and the premiere of the quartet was to have far reaching consequences for Shostakovich's already poor health. The premier took place on May 28th 1966. Shostakovich was to perform in the first half and wrote to his friend Glikman of his terrible nerves.

'When I think that the concert is not that far off, my right hand starts to go on strike altogether.'

The concert was a success with the new eleventh quartet encored, but the extreme nervous tension had taken its toll and Shostakovich was taken ill that night. Shostakovich had in fact suffered a heart attack and although not fatal he was never to fully recover. Some have suggested that it was that night that saw the start of Shostakovich's slow descent to death.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Preparing to record!

Very shortly we will be making our first Shostakovich recording for Signum Classics, with a view to releasing it later this year, just before 'Shostakovich 15' begins! We have chosen to record his Fourth, Eighth and Eleventh quartets, three very different works, which show a great range of emotion and style. Recording is always an exciting and rewarding process. It can be challenging in this environment to replicate the energy and adrenalin of a live performance and, particularly for music as emotionally charged as Shostakovich's, we must consistently deliver a fully committed performance, no matter what take it is! An interesting area of discussion is that of Shostakovich's metronome marks (this is a topic that probably warrants its own post)! For example, in the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, the metronome mark is crotchet = 120. This seems quite slow and at odds with the character of the music. On listening to recordings of the Beethoven and Borodin quartets, who worked extensively with Shostakovich, we discovered that they played this movement significantly faster, also using a "William Tell" like ricochet bow stroke, which wouldn't be feasible at such a slow tempo as 120. There are anecdotal references to Shostakovich admitting that his metronome was broken, yet the appearance of a number on the page seems somewhat non-negotiable! It is a conundrum but ultimately we must try to follow the character of the music, wherever that takes us. An exciting challenge awaits...  

Monday 14 April 2014

Quartet no.4

In the coming months we will be performing Shostakovich's 4th quartet a number of times.(http://shostakovich15.blogspot.co.uk/p/concerts.html) The quartet was composed in 1949, but was not performed until December 1953, nine months after Stalin's death. We were of course interested while learning this work to discover why this happened!
Soviet composers had been advised to ideally include folk music in their compositions. When you hear the last movement of this quartet 'Allegretto' and in particular Shostakovich's use of Jewish folk melodies, it becomes clear that this was probably not what Stalin had in mind! (There was also a major upsurge in anti-semitic campaigning throughout 1948 and several of Shostakovich's works including the song cycle 'From Jewish Folk Poetry' and the first violin concerto were withheld from public performance until 1955.)

 At the beginning of 1948 Shostakovich, along with some other prominent composers, was officially accused of 'Formalism'. Many of Shostakovich's works were thought by the authorities to display “cynical, pernicious grotesquerie, the tone of relentless mockery and ridicule, emphasis on the ugliness and cruelty of life, the cold irony of stylisation”.
  Shostakovich made a contrite public apology, expressed his gratitude to the Party for condemning his errors, and pledged to write more accessible music. The music he was composing at that time may have illustrated his truer feelings however!

The first movement in many ways is quite troubling. Although it opens in a fairly benign manner, quite quickly the movement crescendos to a dissonant and seemingly angry climax, with clashing harmonies and a powerful drone. The movement never quite recovers from this, descending into a melancholy waltz-like section. There is a story of the Borodin Quartet 'auditioning' this work before the 'Ministry of Culture' to see if a public performance might be possible - not an easy job to perform this movement in an optimistic or uplifting way!
In this quartet there is often a feeling that we're singing a message through our instruments. This is especially the case in what is in many ways the heart of the work, the 2nd movement 'Andantino', which contains some of the most beautiful and intimate music, but also anxiety-ridden and with deep sadness.
The 3rd movement 'Allegretto' is a fast paced scherzo-dance, verging on the manic and grotesque, which about half-way through introduces a galloping 'William Tell' - like motif. Whenever we play this theme, it seems like Shostakovich is invoking a sense of irony (a similar theme comes again in quartet no.9), but more of the story and the emotional pull of this quartet can perhaps be explained by Shostakovich's dedication. Quartet no.4 is dedicated to Pyotr Vilyams, an artist and set designer for the Bolshoi theatre. (He had earned a Stalin Prize for his 1942 production of Rossini's 'William Tell'.) Vilyams had died in late 1947, aged 45 - he and his wife Nina were very close friends of the Shostakovich family. 
The finale could perhaps be considered a highlight of the whole quartet cycle. Shostakovich brilliantly fuses the sadness of the second movement and the vitality of the third to produce a dramatic conclusion to the quartet. The use of Jewish dance motifs (as mentioned earlier) produces a movement full of excitement laced with lamentation. The pleading violin part combines at times with a pulsating oom-pah rhythm to produce an unforgettable blend of emotion.  Solomon Volkov quotes Shostakovich as saying:
'This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music.'
This is extraordinary music full of power and pathos, especially the magical ending, which leaves us all full of questions.
We hope you enjoy our performances of this and other Shostakovich quartets in the coming months!

Tuesday 4 March 2014

The adventure begins!

And so we embark on what is sure to be a very exciting and rewarding adventure, in preparing the 15 quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich for many performances throughout 2015. Over the coming months we will be reacquainting ourselves with those quartets we have already performed over the years as well as introducing ourselves to those we have yet to perform. We will also be immersing ourselves in all things Shostakovich, researching his fascinating story and putting these monumental pieces into a historical context. We will inform you of interesting books and articles we are reading but will also greatly appreciate suggestions!
We are delighted that we will make our first Shostakovich recording this summer for Signum Records, to be released later this year. We have chosen his Fourth (1949), Eighth (1960) and Eleventh (1966) quartets, three very different works, which display all the deep emotion, irony and eccentricity associated with Shostakovich’s music. We are really looking forward to this exciting project!

Monday 24 February 2014

Announcing Shostakovich 15!

We are excited to announce that throughout 2015 we will be performing complete cycles of Shostakovich Quartets in cities including Washington DC, London, Oxford,  throughout the UK, across Ireland and in other international venues, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death.
We are very excited to perform Shostakovich's complete string quartets. As performers and listeners we have always found them to have a special resonance with audiences. While they display passion, drama and even humour, these quartets seem to somehow go further than that. There is an expressive emotional quality to this music that really speaks to people. Of course one cannot think of Shostakovich without considering the historical and political context within which he wrote his music and many of his quartets were very much influenced by his feelings towards the Soviet regime, War and the holocaust. The quartets are compelling, exciting, moving and are certainly one of the most significant contributions to the string quartet repertoire.
We'll be posting more info here about venues and dates and our experiences working on and performing these enthralling quartets. Also as part of this project we will be recording a selection of the quartets to be released at the end of 2014 on Signum Classics.