Oct 27, 2011
A chill in the air, crackling leaves, and a roaring fireplace put me in mind of chamber music for some reason — perhaps because it is an interior art. Is it the cold that prepares one for a period of introspection? Chamber music is the art of introspection in sound. In any case, it is what I have been listening to a great deal this fall. Chamber music requires silence and time. It is also sort of familial, just you and several others.
I have spent most of my recent time listening to recordings of a new traversal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets by the Mandelring Quartet, on the Audite label (21.411). By any measure, this is some of the most extraordinary music written during the 20th century. Of course, it reflects the terrible disorientation of the totalitarian regime in which Shostakovich lived, but it never loses its roots in song and dance. That is why it is so effective. Disorientation does not have any meaning, unless there is the anchor of orientation preceding it. Shostakovich’s anchor is in Haydn and Beethoven. Using them as touchstones, he shows us how disoriented things were in the Soviet Union. While there is exquisite beauty here, much of the music is hair-raising, even frightening. After some string lashings, a wistful melody will float by like a life preserver after a shipwreck. A part of Quartet No. 13 sounds like waves of pain through the brain, a musical migraine. Do not let this description put you off; this is very human music. Shostakovich never hides in abstraction, like so many 20th-century composers.
The Mandelring Quartet provides an extraordinary experience in its traversal. Of these quartets, writer Wendy Lesser said, “The four familial instruments seem to whisper directly into our ears, communing with us about our own personal sadness and anxieties.” This is the sense conveyed by the young Mandelring players. Three of the four quartet members are siblings, and the fourth plays as if he were a family member. The sense they give is as if these quartets were taking place inside a single soul. They play within themselves, achieving an extraordinary quality of interiority and unanimity. I have written before that we are blessed to be living in a time of superb musicianship; count these Audite recordings as exhibit A. I will still return often to the red-blooded performances of the Borodin Quartet, but the Mandelring will retain a very special place.
Shostakovich had a soul mate of whom few people know: Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996). Weinberg was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and ended up in Moscow under Shostakovich’s tutelage. He adopted Shostakovich’s musical language wholesale, but nonetheless remained his own man. Song and dance, especially with a Jewish air, are even more prevalent in his music. He and Shostakovich had a game to see who could write the most quartets; Weinberg won with 17. On the CPO label, the Danel Quartet has reached volume 5 in its traversal of Weinberg’s complete string quartets. Vol. 5 contains Quartets Nos. 1, 3, 10, and the short Capriccio Opus 11, as well as Aria Opus 9 (CPO 777 566-2). This leaves only Quartets Nos. 2, 12, and 17 to go. Presumably, these will be in the sixth and final volume.