Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, May 20, 2005

Thursday Night with Shostakovich

I’ve been aware of the chamber group Alias for a while now but finally made it out to hear them this week. The centerpiece of the program was a Shostakovich string quartet, #14 from 1973, very late in his life. He was one of the few composers capable of designing musical structures with the clarity and scope that mark truly remarkable and moving classical music like Beethoven. His compositional style was conservative for the time, with key signatures no less, but that is irrelevant when you get to this level of mastery–at some point timelessness kicks in–and the Soviet system around him provided a completely different context for the development of an artistic language.

The music in this piece bisects and folds up on itself, but also contains elements of disintegration that reflect mortality and the character of the world around him. The quartet has three movements, but the last two run into each other and are tied together by the recap of some material late in the third movement. It is as if 1,2,3 becomes converted to 1│2+3.

The first movement also has a folded, binary structure. It opens with suggestions of a fugue between the violin and cello which develops over a few minutes and then this motion, from fugue into further development, is repeated in a varied form. After that a second half of the movement opens, marked by a lilting accompanying line in the cello. This also gives way to further development, the whole motion gets repeated in modified form, and the whole is closed with a partial return of the cello line. So you end up with 1+1│2+2+2’ It is folded on itself but also closed off with something that shares elements but contrasts in its weight. And that falls within the fold created by the relationship of the movements themselves. The patterns, movement, and weights of the first movement remind me of classical sonata form, but the total defines its own shape.

Shostakovich is one of the few composers of the last century who was able to engage with these sort of structures, classical in the aesthetic sense. The lucidity of the form raises the stakes on the interpretation of local phrases in the pieces, because the presence of the larger structure means it matters where you think a specific line fits. Small moments can seem to wander. I was able to follow the piece well enough, so I would have to say the players handled the interpretive challenge well.

I’m not so good at passing judgment on the playing and interpretation of classical players, but I can say that the musicians in Alias play with great energy, a looseness that you might associate with folk music. Maybe there’s risk of overeagerness to please the audience and keep their attention, but mostly it seems an appropriate interpretation of the music. The energy Alias brings puts the pieces into a context where they are current and breathing, not things cast in a preservative shell.

I don’t know how everyone involved with Alias felt about it, but I was disappointed in the size of the audience, which probably did not half fill the smaller recital hall at the Blair School. Alias has strong playing, they are putting together first rate programs (there was no dreck on it), and there really is nothing else like it regularly available in town. That being said, this was my first time at one of their concerts, so who am I to talk. At this point I am much more accustomed to shows, which start later, have flexibility in when you show up and leave, and where you engage on more levels with the environment. Unfortunately, you just can’t take in what really great classical music has to offer, that coherent, economic articulation of musical ideas, within those distracting contexts.

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