Madison Music Review Header
HomeReviews Features Profiles Links
Up Previous Index Next Down
Pro Arte: Shostakovich

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49 (1938)
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 10 in A-Flat Major, Op. 118 (1964)
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 15 in E-Flat Major, Op. 144 (1974)

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


Delicately, in candle light, and with incredible emotion, the Pro Arte Quartet ended its monumental journey through the 15 Shostakovich quartets Friday evening at Mills Hall. In a stylistic and chronological sense, this fifth concert in the series embraced the whole cycle, for it opened with the 1st quartet (1938) and ended with the 15th (1974), with the 10th (1964) in the middle.

The Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49 is easily accessible music, simple in its warmth, though tightly constructed formally. Its opening moderato is congenial and straightforward. The second movement, also marked moderato, is again relaxed and leads to a fleet and delicate allegro molto. The work concludes with an earnest, almost joyous allegro. The playing was extraordinary, that is, even better than usual, especially in its ensemble: playing really together is a very demanding task, but the Pro Arte made it seem completely effortless.

The Quartet No. 10 in A-Flat Major, Op. 118 opens with an andante, marked in this performance by perhaps the finest viola playing (Sally Chisholm) I've ever heard. Following this relatively sombre beginning, an allegro furioso evokes the idea of swirling cascades of notes. Here too the playing is extremely demanding technically, and the ensemble was perfect. The adagio that follows is lyrical, but even for Shostakovich extremely pensive and introspective. It leads without a pause into the concluding allegretto, which displays relatively few melodic or motivic effects in deference to rhythmic and percussive ones. To my ears the performance wanted for nothing, it was just great.

But somehow, perhaps from the knowledge in a near-capacity audience that after intermission we would hear something drenched with finality, there was a kind of anticipation amounting almost to dread, an expectation that one was sure to be overwhelmed.

With two stark white candles affixed to each of the four music stands and the stage lights turned way down, the Quartet No. 15 in E-Flat Major, Op. 144 summed up not only the universe of Shostakovich's quartet writing, but also the career of the Pro Arte's leader, Norman Paulu, who is retiring at the end of the semester. The 15th, comprising six slow movements, winds its way from elegy to serenade to intermezzo to nocturne (all adagio), then to a funeral march (adagio molto) and a concluding epilogue (adagio). The music is not easily described; it's a sequence of purely musical moods, at once abstract yet deeply human and intensely moving. If one expected to be overwhelmed, that's exactly what took place. After the last note had evaporated, there was a silence of several seconds before the first applause began. Perhaps it was a combination of being drained emotionally, of regretting that something miraculous had at last reached its conclusion, and of extricating oneself from the sombre seriousness of the music.

When it finally came, the applause was thunderous, unremitting through five or six bows, and at that not half the tribute the Pro Arte deserves for achieving a great cultural landmark. Backstage, Paulu was exhausted, ashen and subdued, for together with his colleagues, he had clearly given all it was in his power to give.

Isthmus, April, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

Up Previous Index Next Down