Friends of Chamber Music
The Borodin Quartet

The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich

Performed by The Borodin Quartet with Luba Edlina

The Vancouver Playhouse, November 9, 1999

Hearing an ensemble as revered as The Borodin Quartet was a heady experience and the tightly packed audience was understandably awed by their brilliant, if somewhat mopey, performance. Only cellist Valentin Berlinsky, the last original member, seemed happy to be there. Perhaps they felt Shostakovich's specific zeitgeist of Stalinist Russia would be wasted on our comparatively tensionless West Coast.

The onus was in fact on them, as storytellers of a sort, to render the atmosphere in question transparent. They succeeded. It was not a dramatic outpouring. The Borodin Quartet had a reserve indicative of the restraint necessary to survive the paranoid deathtrap Joseph Stalin created.

Beginning with Shosakovich's String Quartet No.4 in D major, Op.83, gritty, melancholic accuracy pervaded the evening. From 1949, this quartet was short and simple, neither raw nor elegant. The idiom was not radical, such as the music heard further west, or merely symptomatic of a feisty urban composer. It worked with blunt melodic material, which was reworked in different ways that gradually ascended from an unsophisticated state celebrating chamber work to something very ethereal.

The third movement: all the parts relinquished their conventional place in the quartet range to a high register, wherein a lyric canon modulated and seemed ached with a primordial intensity that would not have met with unqualified state approval. Its ascent suggested a vision of musical aspirations that were higher and less conventional than what the Russian state believed in. The way in which this wonderful third movement was approached was probably part of what kept the composer (relatively) out of trouble.

The final movement fell like a brick into conventional modes of state-controlled string quartet behavior. The stone-faced quartet did not give much away, failing to appear transported to hopeful delight, which was no doubt necessary when the work was premiered in Moscow. To visibly identify with state subversion was to put oneself at risk.

The second and final quartet of the first half, No.8 in C minor, Op.110 was written in 1960, well after Stalin's death. While the influence of government on artists was still terrible, for Shostakovich the worst of state oppression was behind him. This quartet worked with many more techniques, expressing a terrible sadness for all that had happened in World War II.

Shostakovich first heard this quartet in his own home, performed by the Borodin Quartet. For listeners this work was more easily appreciated because it was not written in a specific code to protect the players and the composer. Perhaps this was the sort of consideration the ensemble appeared to feel would be lost on the audience.

The second half included Ms. Edlina for the composer's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57. Written in 1940, it represents a completely different preoccupation for Shostakovich: his love for the piano. It was awarded the Stalin Prize, a coveted award for composition, and ironic in hindsight because Stalin was exactly the sort of culture thug Shostakovich disliked.

It might have included some compromises (it did get him out of a jam over a controversial opera he had written) but its sound was less political than the first half of the concert. It sounded like a brilliant young composer's infatuation with the piano. When it was done, the audience leapt to tender a standing ovation, which seemed to annoy the players. It is not common for an audience to go away with a feeling that there's just no pleasing some people.--John Keillor

Audubon Quartet: The String Sextets of Johannnes Brahms

Performed by the Audubon Quartet + friends

at the Vancouver Playhouse  on October 12, 1999

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) was not a typical German Romantic composer in that he was never caught up in the ecstatic rapture of his own genius. His music had a sober integrity precluding whims and temper tantrums. However, the second work was written when Brahms was experiencing a relationship crisis. These two sextets, written during differing emotional circumstances for the composer, offer a compelling aesthetic profile.

The first sextet, Op.18, was written 1859-60. Life was good for Brahms and his disciplined, long breathed melodies worked well into robust counterpoint. Brahms' elegant and unwavering control over the material is a primary expressive factor, more in common with Mozart's late 18th century than Wagner's 19th century and its music's wilder nature. Brahms admitted he should have been born a hundred years previously; he was more Classical than Romantic.

The Op.36 "Agathe" sextet, completed in 1865, exposed Brahms' discomfort with free Romantic expression. Having painfully terminated his relationship with Agethe von Siebold, his musical testimony to his loss was both less assured in execution and perhaps more compelling in elocution. The inner movements were rife with melodies in high registers, not normally part of Brahms' musical language. They sound almost clumsy and very honest, like a tough, laconic man trying hard to talk about his feelings. Brahms was a composer who expressed music rather than himself, which is why his second sextet's particular beauty is unique to his output. Even those who do not know Brahms' music intimately can recognize his distinct composure, which is dignified without any trappings of an affected aristocratic grace. He also refused to reflect the soul of the tortured genius. That was not for him. Brahms was an unpretentious and hard working composer with little interest in the glamour that surrounded 19th century music. His music rarely got "personal" because for him music was better when it was free of an artist's fingerprints of neurosis.

The Audubon Quartet, along with Erika Eckert on viola and Walterr Gray on cello, had no problem uncovering the magic of both sextets. They knew how to bring out soaring Romantic registers and anticipations as well as balances and Classical poise. Programming both works translated to an effective dramatic curve. The second sextet positively ached, while the first sextet was more indicative of the composer's stiff upper lip.

The enthusiastic and sympathetic ensemble brought on a program that gave listeners a rounded portrait of great and very human composer. The acoustics at the Vancouver Playhouse were excellent as usual, and the crowd was as good as a listener or performer could hope for. --JK

The Mandelring Quartet: Haydn, Ligeti, and Mendelssohn

October 26, 1999, at The Vancouver Playhouse

A Friends of Chamber Music presentation

The Mandelring String Quartet is young. Their credits read like that of a successful student group, citing coaching from great working quartets: Amadeus, Bartholdy, Berg, Brandis, La Salle, etc. All except the violist were siblings, which was adorable. Walking on stage, they looked like a pack of smart and friendly new adults all dressed up. It was not an environment to expect a revelation, but there was nothing left to the imagination after the show. No doubt that this was among the best chamber ensembles available.

Beginning with Haydn's Op. 64, no. 5 quartet, The Mandelring had chosen a very particular musical character to reflect. Haydn had been free to compose for patrons other than his employer, Prince Esterhazy, since 1779. This meant more freedom for Haydn to explore musically, to grow beyond courtly sounds and manners. His Op. 64 quartets were commissioned in 1790 by the violinist/merchant Johannn Tost.

The composer's sound had, after 11 years, become more symptomatic of the composer's good nature and bucolic temperament. Mr. Tost intended to perform these quartets and Haydn gave special prominence to the first violin. These quartets were classical works, a style that had only recently shed much of its baroque and rococo trappings. Haydn was the definitive pioneer. The mix of radicalism, of genius, and of easy-going good humour required interpretative strength to accommodate this unique blend of character.

The Manderling were not only able to deliver, they did so with a balance and clarity between voices that was literally breathtaking. Being mostly family, the spawn of musicologist J.S. Schmidt, their ensemble parlance was as familiar as familial dialogue. The performers not only worked well together, their range was especially broad.

Following Haydn was Ligeti, whose second string quartet emerged in 1968. Among post war composers, Ligeti's musical language has been recognized as rigorous, heart-felt, and unique. Many listeners were less prepared for his courageous syntax (not unlike the courage he had drawn upon when he saved his entire family from the ravages of Nazi-occupied Prague), but again the Mandelring made everything sound quite effortless.

Everything was well within their grasp. The mad pizzicato dances, explosions of counterpoint and sheens of extended stillness made more sense in their interpretation than in any recording or performance to the memory of this critic. The quartet's command of colour was exquisite, which is pivotal to the articulation of Ligeti's particular sound.

In both performances of the first half, the ensemble brought forward the unique tension and the unique character of each work.

The second half was Mendelssohn's Op. 13 string quartet of 1827. Mendelssohn has been a progressively less regarded composer because listeners have been reacting more strongly to his more aggressively romantic peers, such as Wagner and Schumann. In the hands of the Mandelring, this quartet is saturated with compelling zeitgeist and its chamber-musical idiom: endless melody with fluid chromatic accompaniment.

The long, lyrical breaths sounded as fresh and pioneering as did the innovations of Haydn and Ligeti. Mendelssohn's relentless melodic undulations sounded steered towards a distant horizon that begged for something unattainable. 1827 was early for the romantic sound, and Mendelssohn must be lauded for this trail-blazing work, composed the year of Beethoven's death. This performance begs the reconsideration of the composer's lagging following and no argument could have been more effective.

After many curtain calls the quartet happily laid down Brahms' Op. 67, the third movement. Tough ol' wonderful Brahms never sounded so good. Listeners came away from this concert a little stunned but very happy. The Mandelring Quartet cannot come back to town soon enough. Kudos to Friends of Chamber Music for making all citizens of Vancouver a little richer for their efforts. JK