Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A passionate second look at Shostakovich

The Brodsky Quartet's Shostakovich cycle recorded in the late 1980s, and released on a Teldec box set of 6 CDs in 1990, has become one of the standard versions of this great collection of 15 string quartets, along with those of the Emerson, Borodin, Manhattan, Pacifica and Fitzwilliam Quartets. Now Chandos is releasing a new live recording made in the spring of 2016 at the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. Twenty-five more years of living with this music has resulted in somewhat more expansive readings - the tempi are almost all a bit slower - but the powerful, emotional core and raw edges of the Brodsky take remain. There was always something special about how these musicians could communicate the composer's public and private musings without slipping into the sentimental on the one hand, or glossing over the pain by focussing on surface beauty on the other. There's a hint of classical restraint at times, with Bach, Haydn and especially Beethoven always not too far away, but the most visceral moments are the Brodsky's best. Here's a reminder of this from their 1990 version, the 2nd movement of the great 8th Quartet:

The new live version of this music is just as urgent, with only the smallest bit of extra polish. I suspect the new version will remain as playable and re-playable as the first one, not only for this work, but all 15 quartets. I look forward to testing this theory.

A fine tribute and a fabulous beginning

Back in 2013 the Dover Quartet made a big splash at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning all the prizes that year. I followed that competition fairly closely on the web, and remember all the buzz about these young musicians. This video shows the energy and precision the group brings to Haydn.

The Quartet's debut disc on Cedille, due to be released October 14, 2016, is another winner. Entitled Tribute, it's an acknowledgement of the mentorship of the great Guarneri Quartet. Like the Guarneri debut LP from RCA Red Seal, released 50 years ago in 1966, it features Mozart's final two string quartets, K. 589 and 590.

The Dover shares with the Guarneri a focus on individualism over group-think. In an entertaining interview with CBC Radio, the group members discuss this key group dynamic concept. In the words of violinist Bryan Lee,
I think of the quartet as being a four-way dictatorship! But I mean this in the best sense, if there is one. Everyone in the group has a very strong and distinct character and personality, and we can all be assertive when it is needed. Sometimes being democratic can waste a lot of time!
The punch-line goes to violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt:  "We are the ideal democracy, which by definition is a dictatorship run by the violist."

The Dover's Mozart is sophisticated and stylish; this is a mature but not over-careful reading, rather than the bright and brash version one might expect from a group with the "up-and-coming" label. The technical skill and strong personality of the early Guarneri Quartet is here; all we need now is fifty years of stamina (the Dover has been together for 8). I'm so impressed with these performances, which bring to the table taste and gravitas without losing any of the verve and passion Mozart always requires.

CDs are typically longer than LPs, and our bonus is a very fine performance of the K. 406 String Quintet with the welcome participation of the Guarneri's own Michael Tree. I look forward to many more discs from these fine musicians!