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Chaconne à son gout

New York
BargeMusic, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
01/15/2011 -  & January 16, 2011
J.S. Bach/Boris Vayner Ciaccona for String Quartet
Claude-Achille Debussy String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57

Olga Vinokur (Piano), St. Petersburg Quartet: Alla Aranovskaya, Evgeny Zvonnikov (Violins), Boris Vayner (Viola), Leonid Shukayev (Cello)

Let’s cut out extraneous words. The St. Petersburg String Quartet is going to play all the Shostakovich string quartets over the next few weeks at BargeMusic, and this can be one of the great highlights of the winter season.

The four players are too rarely in New York, spending much time overseas and in Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory as artists-in-residence. But wherever this group–originally the Leningrad String Quartet!–plays, they give an entirely new look to Russian music. Last night (and tonight), with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, they gave fervent life to one of the composer’s most popular chamber pieces.

“Popular” should not mean easy or facile, and this group seems to have dug deep into the composer’s goals. In my score, he marks the “Intermezzo” Appassionata. But that passion here doesn’t reached the boiling point. Violinist Alla Aranovskaya gingerly started her line over the pinpoint cello, and the other instruments joined in almost as if afraid to approach the burning light. By the time that climax was reached, all the instruments were on knife-edge.

After this, the enigmatic little ditty of the finale was…well, like an anodyne for an internally hazardous few minutes.

The secret of the Piano Quintet, as any Russian group knows, is that Shostakovich was reaching for the inner emotion, using the outer classical edge to hide the more apparent feeling. Thus, when pianist Olga Vinokur started that organ-like opening, her pedals sounding out resonating sounds, one felt an ominous atmosphere. The triumph of the St. Petersburg Quartet was that they never ever emphasized those emotions. They were careful to let the notes do the speaking. Even that jocular scherzo–repeated as an encore–eschewed the usual machine-gun delivery and let all the action come on the waltz.

We have all heard the waltz played as parody. The St. Petersburg Quartet played it straight, the result being a dance made by a seriously disturbed lunatic.

After all, these were Russian players in Russian music. One could say that all of Chekhov’s characters live in a make-believe world. Shostakovich lived in an all too real world, but his music signified that something manic was going on outside his notes.

Preceding this, the Debussy String Quartet had that same underplaying, not even the opening showing undue force. Debussy showed faint lights and fleeting shadows, and the ensemble played it as a painting. The second movement jumped around like the figures of Paul Klee, the closing was nearly fierce. But in the second half of the slow movement, the St. Petersburg Quartet turned on all the emotional stops.

Bach’s famed chaconne (he spelled it the Italian way, Ciaconna) from the second Solo Violin Partita has been arranged almost as many times as La Folia or the Paganini Caprice. Schumann added piano accompaniment, Brahms wrote a version for left hand, Busoni wrote a blockbuster for both hands. I’ve heard it done for four cellos, and Stokowski’s huge orchestra, and there are probably a lot more.

The violist of the St. Petersburg, Boris Vayner, gave it what is probably the first string quartet transcription. The original solo violin notes were barely augmented, but were given the orchestral sounds. At times, all the instruments used pizzicati to make their point. In the middle, the instruments were so thick they could have been playing early Schoenberg.

For me, the magic of the original, and the Busoni, is the sharpness, the upsweep, the tidal fury. This version seemed at once too mellow, too perfect, even a bit timid at the beginning. But Mr. Varney has given his own group an interesting work which they can call their own.

One necessary word here. The St. Petersburg Quartet will be giving Beethoven’s late quartets, and all the Shostakovich quartets at BargeMusic over the next few weeks. The intimacy of the hall, the fine acoustics and this wonderful ensemble itself offers a rare opportunity to hear this chamber music at what could be their engrossing and revealing best.

Harry Rolnick



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