May 24, 2004

Kremerata Baltica Quintet taste perfection with rendition of Shostakovich

The concert opened with a shadowy 12-tone row that shimmered forth from the viola, whispering of possibilities made poignant because they could not exist. The ghostly fragments drifted into the upper strings, transforming themselves into a yearning contemplation in minor seconds and major ninths. The outlines dissolved, and in the spectral silence that followed, a glowing, infinitely fragile image of the original row emerged from the first violin—a variation that flickered and throbbed with the sense of its own ephemerality.

This was a deceptive fragility. It defied the incipient chasms of silence and developed into the second subject in D flat, forcing itself upon the other strings; revolving around hypnotically repeated notes; gaining strength, urgency; morphing and spiraling until it turned into a declamatory, prophetic tutti that reached outwards…and was engulfed by the very swirling melodic fragmentation that it engendered in its ascent. It withdrew, pale and haggard, closing with a cadence of quiet desperation. This was the first section of Shostakovich's thirteenth string quartet, composed in the summer of 1970, completed in a hospital in Kurgan on August 10 while the composer faced an incurable heart condition.

This is the only one-movement work Shostakovich composed, though it falls broadly into three sections. It is an intensely, torturously introspective work, preoccupied with death and speculations of what might come after. The incomparable Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica magnificently portrayed the morbidity of the piece in the phantasmagoric start of the second section. In the second section, the viola introduces percussive "belly taps" under a frenzied theme, composed entirely of fragments veering into the realm of the ghastly; the sforzandi that strike with an obsessive ferocity, sounding curiously like heartbeats; the eldritch minor second trills that function as the psychological equivalent of a trembling, palsied hand; and the disintegration of all semblance of order into anarchy.

The cellist had her finest moment towards the end of the second section, in which she heroically took up the theme, rescuing it from the morbid musing of the viola with a perfect sense of proportion and a dynamism. The piece ended with the viola playing a barely audible, high, excoriating B flat that seemed elongated in time and space, hanging there for an eternity, until the rest of the quartet joins it in a a rush to a sffff… And the music vanishes. Abruptly, inevitably, irredeemably.

The quartet was executed with remarkable control, tightly knit drama, and a brilliant sense of timing. The fermatas were perfectly gauged, the tensions were precisely balanced, and the intense psychological drama of the work (that can very easily be ruined with an excessively emotional or dramatically overwrought reading) was quintessentially preserved. Of course, one would expect nothing less from the Kremerata Baltica. This is an ensemble whose routine performance is characterized by panoramic vision, a fine eye for detail, an exquisite interpretive insight, and effortless technical virtuosity. But although they have practically institutionalized the legendary, this performance of Shostakovich's thirteenth quartet was one of those rare moments when a legend surpassed itself.

The piece that followed, Schnittke's piano quintet, suffered largely from a surfeit of audience expectation after the mesmeric Shostakovich. The return to the merely brilliant—after the superlatively brilliant—made one feel palpably disillusioned. Schnittke originally conceived this piano quintet as an elegy to his mother after her tragic death in 1972. The first movement is essentially a meditation upon an intensely chromatic theme, suggested by the piano and taken up by the upper strings.

This was very effectively done. Pianist Andrius Zlabys played the brooding opening with chilling sonority and softness. The movement became a masterpiece of understatement, suffused with a sense of indescribable melancholia. The ensemble played it with tense restraint, as if they could not (and would not) comment upon grief so profound, merely present it precisely as it was written. However, this very characteristic worked against them in the second movement, which was too understated, too impersonal.

The second movement is a fiendish waltz, starting under clouds of bleakness and degenerating into a maniacal dance of death. The piano thunderously beats out the 3/4 waltz time in block chords against the thin, veiled melody outlined by the upper strings. This is one of the decisive moments of the movement. Everything unravels if these all-important chords are mismanaged. This is the raw emergence of Mephistophelian rhythm that underpins the entire movement. Making it mundane not only lessens the impact of the moment, but invalidates the rhythmic energy and causality of everything that preceded it.

The pianist did precisely what should not be done: He played the chords matter-of-factly. He made the music sound impotent, ineffective, and rather pointless. The same muted understatement permeated the third and fourth movements as well; they worked in sepia tones, suffusing the piece with despondency and dejection. And yet, one often felt that there was too much despondency and too little despair. One felt grief but not anguish, misery but not desolation. It is precisely this sense of anguished desolation that these movements seem to demand. It was a fine reading, an experiment in interpretation, but one that seemed too tentative and altogether inconclusive.

The last movement is structured as a mirror passacaglia with the theme repeated fourteen times—a tinkling, innocent melody that seems both horribly out of place and curiously logical. It is a release of the psychological tension that had been accumulating throughout the piece, incorporating the various themes explored (and integrating everything in a flush of naïveté). However, its effect was not as dramatic as it could have been, as the preceding movements did not generate enough chaos to warrant it. It seemed out of place, and the chillingly childlike motif seemed logically discontinuous, even though it was brilliantly done when taken in isolation.

The ending, however, was perhaps the finest I've heard. The last few (nearly inaudible) notes were breathless with unknown anticipation and faded reluctantly, like the last, lingering glimmers of the light of a long summer evening. But the lack of context made the section disjointed—glacially beautiful, but without connection to what came before. A direct corollary to this is that what came before was fated to remain unresolved.

Their rendition of the dark, passionate and intense Schubert was very well done. Once again, it was institutionalized perfection that would have been awesome had it been heard in isolation. The two outer movements were breathtaking. But in the wake of the transcendental Shostakovich, it appeared commonplace—very unjustly so, but such is the tragedy of perception. The brilliant appears mediocre when set against greater brilliance. In a sense, the concert functioned as its own greatest critic. The most poignant critical statement is one of contrast, and the superlative Shostakovich made everything that came after it less so by definition.