The July 8 performance by the St. Petersburg String Quartet at Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center was an opportunity to obtain, as the stock-pickers say, a “pure play” — their program the following night included piano. Despite the fact that StPSQ violist Boris Vayner has been a student of Carol Rodland, among others, at New England Conservatory since 2003, these performances in Rockport are their first public Boston-area performances since 2006, apart from a 2008 studio performance at WGBH. It was therefore for ample reason that the Shalin Liu was packed to the rafters with locals, summerlings, and many others who endured the Friday traffic to get there.
The quartet, founded in 1985 as the Leningrad String Quartet (changing names when their home town did after the Soviet collapse), flit from its homeland and has for many years been resident at Oberlin Conservatory, with annual returns home, whence they do most of their recording. They and the Borodin Quartet are now considered the leading Russian quartets (or, in the StPSQ’s case, quartets of Russians), and they continue to focus on works from Russia and its former empire. That was definitely the case for their Rockport programs: on July 8 they opened (and closed, if you count the encore) with work by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-91), who is not exactly a household name in the US but who was probably the leading Georgian composer of the twentieth century. They followed with two less familiar works by familiar Russian masters, the Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, op. 108 of Shostakovich, and the Prokofiev Quartet No. 2 in F major, op. 92, and concluded with a rarity that has had a bit of prior exposure in this Boston concert season, Anton Arensky’s Quartet No. 2 in A minor, op. 35a (sort of — see below).
Tsintsadze was represented on the program by a late work, his 1990 Five Miniatures on Jewish Folk Songs. Throughout his career, this composer evinced a fascination for folk materials, largely from his own region, but sometimes spreading out, as this work did. At the same time, his frequent use of the “miniature” format (he composed much large-scale work as well) allowed him to home in on the themes’ essential characteristics without the need to integrate them into a larger developmental framework (as the Prokofiev and Arensky quartets, described below, did). The five brief pieces comprising the Tsintsadze were a “Feast Song,” of a surprisingly somber cast, exposed contrapuntally and showing off some nice string writing, especially in the accompaniment, such as pizzicato glissandi: “L’Chaim,” a rather brisk and rough-hewn toast owing nothing to Fiddler on the Roof; “Lomir Ayle Inem,” ostensibly a drinking song but rather coming off like something Viennese; a tailor’s song in which Tsintsadze makes use of marvelous mixed textures; and “Lomir ich iberbreiten,” a kind of kiss-and-make-up song. For the most part the composer’s harmonic language would not have raised eyebrows in 1890; his texture was homophonic, and his technique was geared to exploring conventional string sonorities, chiefly in accompaniment figures, in a polished and adroit fashion. Except for first violinist Alla Aronovskaya and occasionally Vayner, the performances seemed oddly constrained and laid-back, an observation that we will extend to most of the music on the program.
The Shostakovich Seventh Quartet is not one of his most frequently performed — the one right afterwards is very possibly his most popular. The seventh is nevertheless a compact bit of brilliance that is well worth repeated hearing. Written in 1960 at the end of a decade that, after the blessing of Stalin’s death brought the bereavement to Shostakovich of his wife’s and mother’s deaths (the work is dedicated to his wife Nina’s memory) and the beginning of his health’s decline, the affect of this quartet is sometimes hard to parse. It is not unrelentingly gloomy like his very last works, but its occasional jauntiness is always undercut, principally by a three-repeated-note motif. There is much mysterious and atmospheric here as well, notably in the second movement’s somewhat unusual (for Shostakovich) pizzicato glissandi and quiet pulsation. The StPSQ produced a golden yet highly controlled sound with vibrato ranging from narrow to absent; in this case, the reticence was fully in keeping with the tone of the work. The third movement (all three are played without pause) is a musical and emotional twofer, beginning in a contrapuntal rushing scalar passage that abruptly changes tempo halfway on, to an allegretto that uses the same materials but in a more dance-like pattern that at first yields to, but eventually subdues, the sinister three-note motif. This is music to which the StPSQ is committed, and they performed it with the quiet intensity it deserves and requires.
In contrast to his younger colleague, who became a serial quartet writer, Sergei Prokofiev only wrote two of them. Written during World War II from the internal protective exile into which the Soviets placed their top creative artists, the Second Quartet is a very strange beast indeed. It is largely based on folk tunes of the Kabardin, a Circassian people centered in Kabardino-Balkaria in the far southwest of Russia, bordering Georgia. From the bright opening of the first movement to the concluding flourish of the third, it is hard to detect any of what was transpiring in the rest of the world in this piece. Sonically, too, this quartet is Prokofiev at his most demotic, although it is put together with all of his customary skill and has numerous points of interest: the haunting end of the slow movement, the gruff opening and crisp pizzicati of the finale. Still, in its seldom-broken homophony one senses the composer working at cross-purposes to the traditional “dialogue of equals” that string quartet writing employs. The performance by the StPSQ was fully idiomatic and energetic where it had to be, with sumptuous tone, but, as in most everything at this performance, suffering a bit from the reticence of cellist Leonid Shukayev.
The music to which the players seemed to have put their bowing arms to most vigorous use was the Arensky Second Quartet. This piece has a most curious history: written in 1894-5 and dedicated to the memory of his teacher Tchaikovsky, this quartet began as a work for one violin, viola and two cellos, not the most practical arrangement for a standard string quartet performance — one would need to put it on a concert that already had another cellist, perhaps for the Schubert or one of many other “cello quintets.” [Ed.: see the review of the BSO’s Tanglewood Prelude Concert on July 8, with that Schubert, here.] Arensky’s publisher, however, prevailed on the composer to arrange it for standard quartet and, sensing a potential hit in the central movement’s variations on a Tchaikovsky theme, he also arranged that movement for string orchestra, in which guise the NEC Chamber Orchestra performed it this past February, covered by us here. As it happened, the StPSQ was unaware of Arensky’s own arrangement, and so Vayner made his own, which they perform instead. Anyone who attended this performance might find some instructive amusement in comparing Vayner’s take to Arensky’s, which is available online at the IMSLP portal (the two-violin version is catalogued as op. 35a). One thing we noticed is that Arensky gave the opening tune to the second violin, and Vayner to the viola. Is anyone surprised?
Like every other work on the program but the Shostakovich, Arensky’s quartet derives from third-party material, in this case, in the outer movements, Russian church music of a memorial nature. Vayner did a good job in his arrangement of preserving the dark tone that would be the natural consequence of Arensky’s original scoring, and one could hear the distinct sound of the prototypical Russian male chorus running throughout. The themes are very well and effectively developed (though the finale depended too heavily on purely rhythmic variation of the theme), without constituting a major revelation; the work certainly deserves revival in either of its scorings. The Tchaikovsky variations benefited from the lighter four-voice texture, thereby bringing out many details of articulation that we missed in the string orchestra version, including the gentle parody of Tchaikovsky’s short salon pieces in the first variation, and the two final variations’ muted coloring (the last of which cleverly brought back the repeating-note figure that figures prominently in the opening movement and is further recalled in the finale).
The Arensky, as adumbrated above, brought out a full measure of warmth and projection from all the members of the StPSQ who, besides the three already mentioned, included second violinist Evgeny Zvonnikov, who just joined the quartet last year but whose skill, tone and polish certainly match those of his colleagues.