It might better be said that it was not what Philharmonia Quartett Berlin put into their performance of a one-movement work by Dmitri Shostakovich but what they left out. Imagine coming out of the wintry streets of Boston into the warmth of Jordan Hall — house lights ablaze — then being swept up in such an unambiguous and so stark a reality. This is what Philharmonia Quartett Berlin achieved, raising their voices one by one in solos and altogether as a single voice to warble and buzz the inexpressible, by opening the Celebrity Series concert on Friday, January 28, with the Russian’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor Opus 138.
The Quartett played with less vibrato and less of the many other techniques that give expression to the notes on the page. It was that very tack that took life out of the piece — not the life out of the piece, mind you. (Limbo. Is that where we were being taken?) Gripping music it was. It can be said unequivocally that it was a matchless fit, the Quartett and the “truth-revealing” composition from 1970, when the composer was sixty-four. Dr. Richard E. Rodda reminds us in his “Notes on the program” of Shostakovich’s “principle subject of the music of his last years”: “Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all.”
The Quartet begins with a quiet statement from the viola; shortly thereafter, all four musicians join in. Their statement soon comes to rest on a sharp dissonance which, for me, was not glaring enough. It was not long into the piece, however, that I realized that the Quartett’s intention was a deft one after all: their focus seemed bent on inching their way through this treacherousness.
Now, a day later, as I am writing this review, it occurs to me why the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin chose the encore they did, the slow third movement of Claude Debussy’s only string quartet. Full of warmth and glowing with the sensual and beauty in life, the French Impressionist’s music resonated with light — this, in dramatic contrast to the concert’s opener. Painted in golden hues, the Quartett’s ruminations suggested a lush, dreamy autumnal scene.
Both their Debussy and Shostakovich canvases are etched in my memory. The expressive techniques left out of the Shostakovich and subdued in the Debussy worked. So now the question: why did they not include the Debussy in the program rather than prolonging one that was already long enough? Such a pairing could very well have been a revealing one.
Not so, the rest of the program — the bulk of their playing — of the two big string quartets: Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, Opus 59, no. 2 (“Razumovsky”) and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”). Where their Russian connection transported and their French connection enveloped, in the Beethoven and Schubert I felt much the observer hoping to find the space the revered Quartett occupied. For much of the time, I felt left out. Premeditation prevailed over spontaneity. Excluded was surprise. What was to admire greatly, though, was the ensemble’s precision, which sounded best in the fugal flashes they found for the Razumovsky references in the third movement of the Beethoven. This was an exhilarating display. The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin’s artistry cannot be denied.
In the fourth movement of the Schubert, there is a passage where the cello drones over a double stop, the lead violin on the melody that is first presented in A minor, then in A major. The Quartett’s first iteration of the passage produced the same expression for both modalities. Yet, their second iteration brightened the major. This version made for poetry, and it also showed an odd inconsistency.
According to the concert manager after the performance, it was a “mistake” to have kept the house lights on during the Shostakovich. I feel that nothing could detract from what the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin accomplished in its performance of that one-movement Shostakovich. That was the Bravo!