What’s the story with Shostakovich?
That’s always the question you can’t help asking yourself when hearing Shostakovich’s music, which was showcased Friday at SummerFest in a superlative concert at Sherwood Auditorium. It was the first of three intriguing programs devoted to the Russian master’s chamber music.
Does the Third String Quartet, performed Friday by the Borromeo String Quartet, relate to the end of World War II, with its five moments describing “Calm Awareness of Future Cataclysm,” “Rumblings of Unrest and Anticipation,” “The Forces of War Unleashed,” “Homage to the Dead” and “The Eternal Questions-Why? And for What?” as Shostakovich initially indicated.
Or is it just music, as Shostakovich later insisted, after withdrawing his original explanation?
The members of the Borromeo, in an exemplary performance, took the high road. Everything they brought to their unaffected interpretation was found in the score, and what they found there was not drama but unfailingly riveting music.
This is a highly original work with huge contrasts, whether in dynamics or in mood, as Shostakovich careens from moments of the utmost seriousness to passages of unbridled joy. But he always brings you back. You may start to notice a slight edge to that happiness. And that seriousness never goes for too long before it begins to good-naturedly mock itself.
The Borromeo convincingly captured both extremes and everything in-between. As it proved last week performing Beethoven at SummerFest, this is a quartet with an unusual dynamic range and an unfailing commitment to a unified, ensemble sound and approach.
There were moments in the Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 where the ensemble’s playing was so soft (and the audience’s attention so focused) that you could hear the street noise outside Sherwood Auditorium. But it’s a softness with a surprising amount of intensity, so it’s never a matter of the music’s momentum fading away. Often, just the opposite happened.
And in the loudest passages, you had the feeling violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim were never forcing anything, but just allowing the music to emerge of its own accord.
The program’s first half was also satisfying. Violinists David Chan and Cho-Liang Lin (SummerFest’s music director), violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Clive Greensmith joined the members of the Borromeo in an engaged, nuanced reading of the early Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11.
It provided a burst of youthful energy in which the 18-year-old age composer already showed a highly original musical mind and a wicked sense of humor; and it offered a contrast to the shattering Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 147, that followed. The ailing, 69-year-old composer wrote the sonata only weeks before his death.
Although Shostakovich quotes Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata in the final movement, the work seems abstract in the extreme. Neubauer, with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, offered a definitive, albeit stark , view of the work, which was considerably more restrained than anything else on the program.
It’s tempting to say that’s an indication of Shostakovich’s acceptance of his approaching death, but really, that’s a story.
As this concert proved, forget the story; just let the music speak.