Sunday, March 24, 2013

Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen

I don't get to hear concerts with Nate any more, but over the past couple of weeks the youngish Jerusalem Quartet took their four-concert complete Shostakovich cycle to both Portland and New York, so we at least got to hear some common sounds at a remove. I write this in the expectation that Nate will share his doubtlessly copious Shostakovich-thoughts at some point, too.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had been advertising the series for a few weeks; seeing posters about Shostakovich in outer-borough subway stops delighted me quite a bit. Nate saw the complete set (of course), and I made it to two of them, encompassing quartets no. 2, 3, 7, 9, 13, 14, and 15.

Normally I'd have more to say about the Ninth Quartet, which has an ambitious scale and an especially urgent expressive impulse. But my lasting impression from the two concerts is very much from the late quartets, Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen.

Thirteen I knew the best, having heard it in concert and even before that loved it for its modernist edge, unusual for Shostakovich. In context with the other quartets I found it extremely unsettling. It's an angry piece, raw and out of place, inviting the frightening question of what kind of pain would drive him to write something so far away from his normal voice. The program note reminded me that he composed it in between hospital stays, in deteriorating health, and it was impossible not to envision the enclosure of a hospital bed and fever dreams. A strong note in my feeling afterward is guilt for having liked the piece without acknowledging exactly what an evil experiences it suggests for its composer. I doubt I'll hear it the same way again.

Fifteen is his last, and one of his final works, understood as an elegy written for himself a few months before his departure. Late Shostakovich is all sparse, cryptic stuff, but even in that context Fifteen sits a distance beyond. It sounds less a final expression of life than a series of prepared public remarks on the occasion of death. Not a question of coming to grips with a farewell, but sketching a series of quizzical situational observations having unambiguously reached its doorstep. There are doses of anguish and bleak humor and some beautifully heartfelt sentiment, and I shouldn't go without marveling at the first movement, a peaceful mulling-over of what I assume is Russian orthodox chant. But the feeling overall is resolved and muted and very hard to figure out. The Jerusalems played it with the lights down low, which is apparently a performance tradition for some quartets.

The one that haunts me is Fourteen, though, the next-to-last. Where Thirteen and Fifteen seem to inhabit the boundaries of a defined emotional space (however pained or remote they might be), Fourteen seems to wander an open ground. Musically, its memorable feature is a recurring impulse towards sweet, folk-like tunes, including a fairly jaunty opening theme. But the accompanying rhythms lose their structure, and the harmonies fall slack into odd dissonances. It's not grotesque, or even that unsettling most of the time; just odd and elusive. There are long stretches of spare, slow, monologue-like music, and episodes tend to arrive and pass without reaching climaxes or establishing dramatic purposes. Overall it struck me as an extremely interior piece, like the depiction of a wandering train of thought, passively encountering various quiet moods and mental images. It has a memorably peaceful ending, beautifully set up as the last movement trails off. But I still can't make heads or tails of it, and the musical material itself is so wispy that only a couple of melodies and gestures are still in my ears. I find it extremely difficult even to describe the piece in words.

The members of the quartet played with constantly evident conviction and a rich expressive range, and the acoustics in Alice Tully Hall are grand, so all was well on the performative front.


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