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...