Quarter imbues music with unique Russian flair

By Jeremy Rosenberg

Russian music and Russian musicians. No better coupling exists. None is so complementary, so sublime, so perfect. Anyone can play Germanic music; it has become far too universal to belong to the Germans any longer. Italian music belongs to the virtuosos, and not to the Italians in particular. Though English music certainly has a uniquely British character, that character is well known enough by European and American orchestras to be easily imitated. Spain would be able to contend with Russia were it not for the fact that Arthur Rubinstein—born in Poland and trained in Berlin—became a chief interpreter of the country’s piano music. (Composers Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla themselves said that he played their music “like a born Spaniard.”) The French are perhaps Russia’s only true rival in this subject. They end up falling short, however, for Frankish interpretations of their works have become too standardized.

No, the orchestras of the world have only failed in capturing the spirit of Russian music. Nothing is quite as special as Russian musicians playing the music of their homeland when they manage to channel all the emotion, joy, and torture of every single soul in Russia. In Mandel Hall last Friday evening, we were treated to something this special.

The night was hot and humid. The chairs in the hall seemed more uncomfortable than usual. The décor appeared worse somehow; perhaps the paint on the walls had peeled a tad more. The acoustics couldn’t be worse, could they? Everything felt especially weighty and dampening. Then the Kopelman Quartet walked on stage.

Rather than changing the mood, rather than lifting the burden off the shoulders of the audience, they embraced it. Opening with Prokofiev’s second quartet, Op. 92, they played with a dragging, straining quality that did not restrain the energy of the piece, but rather bestowed a yearning life upon it. In the first movement, the folk-like melodies were presented with a rough, earthy style, keeping them sturdily tied down. The Kopelman let the weight of the night sink in with an unusually long pause before the development. All in all, this movement promised a thoroughly wonderful night.

That promise was fulfilled (and more) with the second movement of the Prokofiev. This Adagio transported everyone from the earth to the stratosphere. Beginning with a cello solo in its highest register and ending with rising, heavenly chords, this movement contains practically no low sonorities. The string players exploited this fact exquisitely, adding to the sublimity with their whispering, enticing tones. All of the eternally moving accompaniment figures sounded not as if they were labored intensities, but rather delicate flutterings. The ricochets were played with delightful accuracy, and the pizzicati all had an extra pop to them. The weight of the first movement was, thankfully, maintained in the melodic octave doublings. These doublings were played with such force and sustenance that no one in the audience could have doubted the connection between this movement and the first.

The third and final movement was unquestionably weighty. The melody (when it appears in its main form) consists nearly completely of down bows, unleashing a wild fury. Unfortunately, this was the least effectual performance of the piece. The quartet’s tones became somewhat too spread-out at times, and they were not the tightest of ensembles, especially during passages where the violins were playing in their highest registers. Those quibbles would be minor by themselves, but this movement was lacking something else: a convincing climax. Indeed, though Prokofiev’s quartet is a masterpiece, a true build is the one thing it is missing.

The Kopelman Quartet did not let such a thing stop them, for they played the Prokofiev masterfully, as they played the Miaskovsky that followed. His thirteenth quartet, Op. 86, received the same weighty treatment as the Prokofiev. Miaskovsky, however, was no Prokofiev, and this quartet simply does not have the marks of genius the previous one had. This fact did not prevent the Kopelman Quartet from filling it with a similarly heavy mood.

The first movement presented an almost continuous melody, which, though intriguing, spent too much time meandering to lend the movement a proper emotional trajectory. The Presto fantastico, on the other hand, was much more frantic and excited. Its trio section was one of the highlights of the evening, full of tragedy and swelling emotion. With a trudging intensity, the melody—here in octaves, like in the Prokofiev—pressed forward. The slow movement was a classic, heartfelt, and almost cliché Russian-romantic melodic-based movement. Ultimately, this was too static, though it ended quite well. The finale was also a bit meandering, though it came to a superb end. Like the Prokofiev, this quartet lacked any great climax—something that would not be absent the rest of the night.

The second half of the program consisted solely of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 30 quartet, his third. For this, the Kopelman Quartet added yet another dimension to the weight of the night. Somehow they managed to further thicken the texture of their ensemble from its already viscous unity. Beginning with a movement of quintessential Tchaikovsky lyricism and continuing with a classic scherzo and trio movement, the first half of the quartet was excellent both in composition and performance.

This half was, however, only a prelude to the focal point of not only this quartet’s but the entire night’s program. The masterful third movement of the Tchaikovsky is not a funeral march, but an Andante funebre, a funeral walk. This was Russian music in the hands of Russians, the musical expression of the tortured soul, and the Kopelman Quartet emptied their hearts into the performance. As if the melody itself were not emotionally wrenching enough, each phrase is punctuated with a recitative-like repetition in the second violin of a single B flat pitch. Nowhere else is so much meaning put into a single note. This B flat was eventually passed to the cello where it repeated continuously, leading to a long, slow build that provided the first true climax of the night. It was well worth the wait.

After a suitably long pause, the Kopelman Quartet finished up the night with an appropriately weighty finale that lived up to the risoluto of its title. In the midst of the still oppressively stuffy atmosphere, the positively orchestral-sounding chords in this final movement seemed to tie the entire night together. The weight of humidity was channeled into the weight of the music in a most extraordinary way. Russian music and Russian musicians. This concert made me certain that no better coupling exists.