Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Pacifica Quartet Shostakovich-centered series on Cedille comes to an exciting, thought-provoking conclusion

Four  double-CD volumes of "The Soviet Experience" performed by the Pacifica Quartet constitute one of the most impressive recorded statements by a top-flight American string quartet in recent memory. (The group was last heard in Indianapolis on May 11, 2011, in a concert presented by Ensemble Music Society.)
The Pacifica Quartet has concluded its striking "Soviet Experience" series.

Cedille Records, the estimable Chicago label focused on Chicago-area musicians, is remarkably resourceful in documenting their first-rate work and sharing it with the world. The company has once again added to its luster with the completion of this series.

Volume IV contains the last three works for string quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), whose achievement in that medium was rivaled in the 20th century only by Bela Bartok's six and Arnold Schoenberg's four. With Quartet No. 3 by Alfred Schnittke (1919-1996) filling out the second disc, the opportunity is rich for assessing what Shostakovich achieved across a creative life shaped and sometimes endangered by Josef Stalin and his successors.

The string quartets offer more of an opportunity to appreciate Shostakovich than the symphonies or the operas. Despite their often distinguished music, those genres provide more fertile ground to examine Shostakovich's struggle for survival and creative freedom in a hostile political environment. With the chamber music, by and large, we can hear what Shostakovich was all about musically.  If the Russian government had been less repressive, or even if Shostakovich had become an expatriate, the string quartets seem to say that we would still be hearing the same composer.

Grounded in tonality but able to enfold challenges to its dominance, Shostakovich was also grounded in vernacular genres (marches and waltzes, chiefly) as aspects of his personal expression. His confident craftsmanship is always in evidence, certainly in these final quartets, with their formal individualism and wide expressive range. Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor — in one long movement with a slow-fast-slow structure — opens with daringly thin textures as a 12-tone (but tonally directed) theme is outlined for nearly three minutes until the full quartet is heard.

Shostakovich seems to challenge ensemble unity almost as much as Elliott Carter: The inward-looking "Elegy: Adagio," which opens Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, features poised separate entrances, as if the four instruments were being kept at arm's length from one another.  The mood of isolation and solitude is thoroughly apt for such elegiac music. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pacifica manages to make of one of those skipping Shostakovich marches — in the first movement of Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp major — something both hard-digging and playful.

Comparison with the Schnittke,  with its abrupt episodes of or allusions to contrasting music, calls to mind a literary parallel — one  of T.S. Eliot's most famous pronouncements on the history of English poetry. In praising John Donne and his school in "The Metaphysical Poets,"  Eliot argued for recognition of a crucial change, "something that happened to the mind of England" in the 1600s.  He called it "a dissociation of sensibility... from which we have never recovered."  He meant, in explaining why by the time of Tennyson and Browning this dissociation was exerting its full force, to point up the difference between "the intellectual and the reflective poet."

"Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think," Eliot wrote, "but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility."

I'd like to apply this idea to music, and suggest that it might be more useful to compare composers in a narrower microcosm than Eliot had in mind. Doing so avoids the fact that proving such a major historical shift in any art is more difficult to defend than explaining temperamental differences between creative artists with overlapping life spans in the same culture.

Schnittke, born in  the Soviet Union and seeing it dissolve only toward the end of his life, expresses a dissociation of sensibility in music that cannot help being disjunctive, internally at odds with itself.  Despite the fact that his String Quartet No. 3 strikes me as a coherent work, the composer's characteristic manner reflects a divide between emotion and thought. It's sometimes harshly expressed, though it still falls under Eliot's meaning of "reflective," insofar as second thoughts necessarily became second nature to artists who grew up under Stalinism.

Part of what makes Shostakovich a greater composer (even with only the evidence of this 2-CD package) is that his intellectual grasp of what he wanted to say in music and the emotions that helped generate it always seem unified.  His musical thought, initially formed before the Soviet tyranny solidified, always has the immediacy of sense experience, like the odor of a rose.

Why it "tells" so convincingly is that the way Shostakovich cast his experiences in musical terms is intellectually and emotionally indivisible. An intuitive apprehension of this unified sensibility by concert audiences around the world helps account for Shostakovich's enduring popularity. It certainly justifies the advocacy of the Pacifica Quartet, which is now in residence at Indiana University while it furthers a worldwise reputation of its own.


As its predecessors led music-lovers to expect, Volume IV has pristine sound, with a lively presence of all four instruments, yet nothing glaring or too "forward."  And there are many places in this repertoire where string sound is pushed to extremes, sometimes quite suddenly. Any off-kilter sound reproduction would conspicuously mar these performances.  The highest compliment that can be paid to them is that the Pacifica seems to be composing the music as it plays, from a place of deep engagement with whatever embattled muse visited both Shostakovich and Schnittke.