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Pro Arte: Shostakovich

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Major, Op. 142 (1973)
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (1960)
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 (1946)

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


The third of five Pro Arte Quartet concerts devoted to the complete quartets of Shostakovich took place at Mills Hall Saturday evening. It lived up to the high expectations created by the first two programs and drew a standing ovation from the large audience.

This is not always easy music to listen to. The 14th Quartet (F-sharp Major, Op. 142, 1973) is full of musical riddles, strange turns of the language, odd twists of form. This is not the language of ordinary beauty; rather, it is the manifestation of a purely musical context, comprising line, rhythm, tone, texture, and structure. At no point during the half-hour it takes is there anything simple or completely clear. Here the composer cedes nothing to easy comprehension for the listener, but rather works out the musical ideas as the materials themselves dictate, in an extremely introspective way.

While in some sense this inherent musicality is found in most good chamber-music writing, clarity is much more in evidence in the 8th Quartet (C Minor, Op. 110, 1960). But it is the clarity of great pensiveness, of some sort of inner woe, carefully and painfully detailed in the three slow movements (largo) that enfold an allegro molto and an allegretto. The piece is very hard to play: much of it is very soft, much lies in extreme registers, and it's especially demanding to achieve perfect ensemble in such open, slow-moving textures as we have here. The performance was stunning -- there's no other word for it -- above all in the opening and closing largos.

The 3rd Quartet (F Major, Op. 73, 1946) is probably the best known of the whole cycle of Shostakovich string quartets. I'm pretty sure it's the one that has been recorded the most. Although it could hardly be called a happy work, the 3rd is in its musical language a good deal more accessible than most of the others. The Pro Arte played the opening allegretto with considerable flexibility and with especially clean articulation. Flawless ensemble distinguished the superb second movement, moderato con moto. This leads to a frenzied allegro non troppo, once more showing remarkable ensemble and extraordinary technical mastery. The slow movement, adagio, was truly inspired! It joins without interruption to the concluding moderato, where again complete togetherness of the players rounded out a unique performance.

Really, three quartets like these is too much to bear at once, but there's no other practical way to present them. For the first time, too, I started to have separation anxiety about the Pro Arte, for first violinist Norman Paulu's retirement looms ever closer, and even under the most favorable of scenarios, it will be a little while until we can hope to have this kind of concentrated excellence again. Well, one of the great joys of music is its very transitoriness: we can all look forward to hearing great works again. This series has been something of a miracle; I'm sure there will be more miracles at the final two concerts, March 6 and April 15.

Isthmus, February, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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