With thousands of students in the streets of Montreal protesting a tuition hike in the afternoon, the launch of a quartet cycle in the evening by a composer whose life and music was defined by the lack of rights as a citizen and an artist, seemed entirely appropriate. It was the first complete Shostakovich quartet cycle performed in Montreal in more than 30 years, when the Fitzwilliam Quartet did the honors, and a splendid achievement for the Montreal Chamber Music Festival celebrating its 17th season.
It's also the first time the Pacifica Quartet, who have performed the complete cycle in New York, London, and Champaign/Urbana, were to play the cycle on four successive nights.
The first two nights of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, May 22 and 23, advanced on two fronts. Each evening was introduced by American music critic and novelist Wendy Lesser, whose Shostovovich book Music For Silenced Voices is a musical-literary guide par excellence. Partnered by Montreal creative force Richard Turp, who provided French translations enhanced by his own knowledge and insights, Lesser proved to be a charming host whose comments, like her book, lowered any accessibility barriers.
Central to all of this, of course, was the superb music making by the Pacifica Quartet.
Playing on a brace of instruments—Ceruti, Hill, Testore and da Salo (reportedly his only functioning cello!)—the playing was seamless and elegant, a model of teamwork that yielded not only the expected musical experience but real insights into Shostakovich's growth as a quartet writer, particularly the ease with which he referenced his own and other composers' music (including coincidental echos in two of the quartets of the first variation of Benjamin Britten's Frank Bridge Variations—composed in 1937!).
The most striking performances were of the Fourth Quartet, in which the composer first asserts himself in the genre, a commanding Sixth (described by Lesser as "impenetrable" but in the Pacifica's hands a satisfying work of tremendous depth and stature), and the epigrammatic Seventh (composed in memory of the composer's first wife).
A key to the success of both evenings was St. George's Church in downtown Montreal, which gives a choice of sonic environments, depending on seat location, from large, exciting and spatially precise to intimate, warm and finely blended. Also playing a part were the two editions the quartet uses: the Russian DSCH New Collected Works edition for the parts and the beautifully-printed Sikorski study scores of the original publications for checking the occasional discrepancy.
Coming up: the forbidding landscapes of the later quartets.
- Montreal Chamber Music Fest—Brandenburgs a la Wallfisch
- The Montreal Chamber Music Festival—Canada's Instrument Bank Steals the Show
- More from Montreal: The Les Petits Violons School
- Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. V—It's a Wrap!
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. IV, the Results
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. III, The Finals
- Live from Montreal: The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt.II
- Making a Cello, Part II
- Live from Montreal!
- Making a Cello: Part One