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Pro Arte: Shostakovich

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 7 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 108
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 12in D-Flat Major, Op. 133

Pro Arte Quartet
Norman Paulu, violin
Jae-Kyung Kim, violin
Sally Chisholm, viola
Parry Karp, cello


An excited throng of musicians and other music-lovers nearly filled Music Hall Saturday evening for the first of the Pro Arte Quartet's series of five programs devoted to the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. This series of performances is a musical monument of major proportions. To be able to hear all fifteen quartets as realized by a single group is to witness a landmark artistic achievement. It's the first opportunity in Madison, probably in the state, and one of a very few in the world, to hear the entire body of this historically very significant 20th-century composer's work of a particularly important form.

His life having spanned the worst of the former USSR's strangulations of art and culture, his having survived being anathemized and cut off from public performances, Shostakovich has emerged posthumously into growing veneration as a consummate creator within resistance. While he was personally miserable having to live under miserable conditions, he managed somehow to go on writing even when it was clear the regime intended to silence him and maybe even to take his physical life. Add to this the long tradition of string-quartet playing, reaching back to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in which a composer's most perfected achievements are concentrated in an austere, crystal-clear form, and we end up, in the case of the Shostkovich cycle, with something unique for an entire generation. It's this that makes the Pro Arte's series important from the outset.

And what an intense, absorbing, and rewarding beginning it was! The 2nd, 7th, and 12th Quartets were written between 1944 and 1968, that is, from the worst of the Stalinist period and the Second World War, though the mid-50s thaw, and into the Cold War period that ended well after Shostakovich's death. Each work is remarkably unlike the others, even though you'd have to hear only a few measures to know you were listening to Shostakovich. The 2nd (1944) is an extended grimace of great pain, yet imbued with such beauty and grace. The elements of passion, suffering, and joy, which permeate most of Shostakovich's oeuvre, are especially concentrated here, most of all in the rhapsodic slow movement. For me, this was a peak experience, easily worth five stars in my aesthetic Michelin Guide.

The 7th quartet (1960) is quite short, its four movements melded into a smooth flow of strictly musical problems being solved in a clear, elegant way. The 12th (1968) is of medium length and marked by extreme economy in its use of motivic materials. It also is of transcendant technical difficulty when it comes to demands on the players. Indeed in all three works the Pro Arte seemed to reach and remain at the apex of quality playing. Doubtless they were moved and inspired -- this is hardly an overstatement -- by the majesty of the undertaking. I think this opens a new era for the Pro Arte, which for the first time in years has now emerged as a solid, unified, seamlessly joined ensemble of four first-rate musicians playing with a single voice and a single vision. Nothing less could hope to carry out the daunting tasks they face. I don't think chamber music gets better than that.

The remaining concerts in the series are Nov. 21, Feb. 4, Mar. 6, and April 15. To miss any of them should be unthinkable, in my opinion.

Isthmus, September, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson

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