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Gallery Quartet Greets Shostakovich Centenary

Mr. ShostakovichOpening the final month of this year’s Sunday concerts at the National Gallery of Art, its eponymous string quartet – Claudia Chudacoff and Teri Lazar, violins, Osman Kivrak, viola, and Diana Fish, cello – played a fine and thoughtful program of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. Nothing disappointed, but this year’s No. 2 centenary boy, Dmitri Shostakovich, came away with the prize performance.

Ms. Lazar took first violin for the Haydn and Shostakovich, leading with a beautifully phrased, gentle, yet propulsive opening for the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, op. 76, no. 4. The perfect string quartet, in my view – presented in fine style by the Gallery players. The playing was full-blooded but in Haydn-appropriate terms, balanced, disciplined, warm. It is no surprise that these players also perform under another nom de archet, The Sunrise Quartet.

Good as the Haydn was, the Shostakovich Fourth Quartet, one of a handful of works the composer -- then still under strict scrutiny from the 1948 Zhdanov decree against ‘formalism’ in Soviet music –- withheld from performance until after Stalin’s death in 1953. In four deceptively titled movements (three Allegrettos and a second-movement Andantino), the composer strikes his golden mean, between tragic emoting and intellectually imaginative exploitation of the quartet medium for an almost classically expressive effect. The Fourth Quartet (like the song-cycle ‘From Jewish Folk Poetry’ composed around the same time and similarly withheld) is characterized as having ‘Jewish’ elements in the sad, nostalgic tone of much of the music.

Even so, as pure music the quartet has plenty of antecedents in the Shostakovich canon, from the brief opening movement, an almost dreamlike arc of tone reminiscent of the gathering flood of polytonality that opens the Second Symphony, to the fade-away final coda that recalls the conclusion of the Eighth. The Andantino plumbs the depths without the overkill the composer sometimes fell into. A key work in the Shostakovich canon, it was ably performed, and if not with maximum virtuosity at least with the proper care and intensity.

The program concluded with Mendelssohn’s Second Quartet in A Minor, op. 13, the work of the teen-age prodigy, in its third local performance reviewed by Ionarts in the past two seasons. The outer movements are strong, dramatic, and imaginative, and Ms. Chudacoff, switching to lead violin, did well with her solo turns against pizzicato strings in the Intermezzo, and in the dramatic scena over tremolo strings in the closing Presto. Still, the middle movements didn’t quite come off (imagine: Mendelssohn better at drama than Intermezzos) and the players seemed to be convincing themselves of the work’s merits rather than the audience. Good, not great, early Mendelssohn, but with so many repeat performances, how about a Berwald quartet for a change?

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