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St. Petersburg on the Potomac

Having made quite a name for themselves over the last years, not the least through their now complete Shostakovich cycle on hyperion, the St. Petersburg String Quartet stopped by the National Gallery of Art in a program of Mendelssohn, Smetana, and – delightfully – Shostakovich. Mendelssohn’s quartet no. 2, op. 13, was recently presented in D.C. by the Pacifica Quartet (see Ionarts review) – but it’s a work one can’t hear often enough.

F. Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Talich Quartet
Founding member Alla Aranovskaya on first violin very much played first fiddle, taking leadership in (or, less charitably put: dominating) three works, reminding me of the Chilingirian Quartet. If the Mendelssohn started out quite nicely, it showed a few problems as it progressed, notably in Boris Vaynar’s occasionally unsteady viola playing or wherever Mme. Aranovskaya’s tone crossed the line from precise and steely to sour. Leonid Shukayev’s lucid playing was consistently beautiful and supportive.

It is good to see Mendelssohn’s quartets really take off (the Emerson gave a taste of it just this Thursday at the Strathmore Hall – as reviewed by Ionarts – because they are all exquisite. If I don’t dare claim that they are musically superior to Schumann’s or Brahms’s string quartets, I’ll at least point out that they are far, far easier to enjoy and also needn’t be played at near perfect levels to convince.

D. Shostakovich, Quartets 5, 7, and 9, St. Petersburg SQ4t
available from Amazon
B. Smetana, String Quartets, Panocha Quartet
Is there something to or in Shostakovich (and Bartók) that makes performances of his quartets generally stand out and be played better than works of other composers? Just like I’ve hardly ever heard a bad or even mediocre performance of a Bartók quartet, I’ve yet to hear sub-par Shostakovich, even where the works around it were not played all that radiantly. It’s not a matter of not needing to play DSCH well for his music to be enjoyable; it seems difficult not to play it well. Does it demand (and get) more practice and concentration? Is there a sense among performers that Haydn can be played after a night out but that Shostakovich needs a bit of extra effort and alertness? Whatever the case, the St. Petersburgers were indeed a good notch above the Mendelssohn in their performance of the DSCH quartet no. 9. With its three Allegretto movements and an Andantino wedged in at second position, it sparkles with that rhythmical quality that, once you are seduced by it, will never let you sit still again during one of his chamber works.

Over sheer endless pedal points, Smetana’s first (of two) quartet (“From My Life”), in E minor, started the second half. Written eight years before the composer’s death in 1884, it already shows his bouts with deafness and perhaps even syphilis. The quartet’s depiction of ‘inner hearing’ – Smetana’s attempt to depict in music the sensation of deafness – got an eerie touch from the reverberant acoustic of the West Garden Court that, on the downside, was also responsible for the wash of sound that dominated most of the concert. The amiable performance of this quartet stuffed with musical references served the enjoyment of the audience well, much like the Mendelssohn.

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