Nature conspired with the Pacifica Quartet to bring its cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich's string quartets at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, and the composer's inner turmoil, to a peaceful close with a performance of Nos. 13-15. It was as if Shostakovich's turbulent life, which rivaled that of Hamlet, the Shakespearean hero he so closely identified with, was being sung to rest by his own music.
The evening of May 25, heavy with the oppressive humidity of an approaching storm, opened with a final pre-concert lecture by writer Wendy Lesser (author of recent Shostakovich study Music for Silenced Voices) and her translator-cum-accomplice par excellence, the tenor Richard Turp, communing with an audience of whom many may have come to regard the cycle as a work for string quartet and two speakers.
When the storm finally cracked during Quartet No. 14, as Hamlet's heart cracked when he died, the ferocious rain that followed brought relief to the players and the audience. When the 15th Quartet began after intermission, with the house lights in St. George's Church turned off except for spots for the Pacifica's music stands, Shostakovich's remarkable journey came to its final rest.
As was his habit, references to his own music are still scattered throughout, more affectionately than he allowed himself in the earlier quartets and most affectingly in the Funeral March last movement, permeated by a brief rising figure from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro where Figaro, surrounded by women and love (as Shostakovich himself was), advises his disciple in love, the young page Cherubino, "You won't go any more, amorous butterfly, fluttering around inside night and day, Ddsturbing the sleep of beauties, a little Narcissus and Adonis of love."
It became apparent as the last three quartets ran through their allotted times that the composer was looking for something beyond the silence that Lesser describes so eloquently, for some right notes, or combination or right notes, that could serve him as a code for accepting his mortality.
In a culture in which people commonly listen without really thinking, extending musical cycles as if they were long, continuous single works, the benefits of hearing a cycle live yields tremendous results, and the circumstances under which the Pacifica Quartet labored on the last evening played a major role.
As playing and recording complete Shostakovich quartet cycles has become a staple of the classical music scene in the 21st century (there are 11 recordings available with the Pacifica's scheduled to join those when its completed later this year), the pre-Perestroika, intellectually rigorous style has increasingly given way to something more human, more vulnerable, more flawed even, all qualities in which the Pacifica Quartet excelled throughout the four nights.
It was a musical event that enabled Shostakovich, across unimaginable chasms of time and experience, to share, simply and without reservation, what was in his heart and soul.
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