with ears and hearts wide open
The wan, lonely, meandering tunes Shostakovich wrote into the first movement of his String Quartet No. 8 pull themselves together as the piece goes on. Monday night, violinists Alexander Mandl and Jeanyi Kim, violist Nathan Hackett and Adrien Zitoun reinforced that change, from the hopeless lost to the fragile found, ever so subtly. A little more shape and impetus to the phrase here, a little more tone and less white noise there, and we got the picture. They also fingered the pulse of the poignant interplays of major and minor and gossamer counterpoint and sturdier blocks of harmony. That last point counted big at the end, when Shostakovich suddenly winds the wispy filaments of sound into cords, figuratively, and chords, literally.
The players put a stinging edge in their timbre for the waspy swarms of notes that open the second movement, and they kept it raw and raucous for the careening dances that followed. In the fourth movement, they dug deep into the strings to create a sense of pushing heavy loads of melody uphill. Arrival at the peaks meant digging even deeper to crush out sets of brutal, insistent chords.
The Eighth is as dark and tragic as music without words can be. Shostakovich gives some comfort, if not redemption, in the end. A little lullabye rises and the brutality recedes to the background. As Shostakovich develops the gentle song, he integrates gentle version of the frightening music from the fourth movement. Life is a heartache and a battle. Then we rest.
The Philomusica kept it dark with Henryk Górecki’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Already It Is Dusk”), a more compact and more sharply contrasted expression of the sentiments Shostakovich conveyed. A traditional Polish bedtime prayer for children inspired him: Already it is dusk, the night is near/Let us ask the Lord for His help/To protect us from evil/To guard us from those who use the darkness for their wrong-doings.
The music swings between a quiet little chorale set on edge by polytonal dissonance and a stomping depiction of evil on the rampage. This vacillation between quivering hope/fear and evil occurs several times. It turns more terrifying when the prayer — the thing that protects against evil — transforms into that very evil. This conflation rises to a climax of a shrieking, sustained alarm high in the violins, the sonic equivalent of night terrors. A hoedown in hell commences and builds to a climactic breakthrough — dawn, the end of a nightmare and return to dreamless sleep? Who knows? But we nestle back into the chorale. Its dissonance remains intact, because who can rest easy in this crazy world?
After all that gloom and terror, Beethoven sounded downright chipper. Kim, who sat second for the first half, traded chairs with Mandl for Beethoven. She commanded the highly virtuosic violin 1 role, notably the series of speedy, florid runs that lead from the development to the recapitulation in the first movement. She did not merely play them; she shaped them into a heroic outpouring with expressive changes of force and impetus.
A dreamy melody that trips lightly along in 6/8 over melancholy chords opens the second movement. Beethoven messed with an A-B-A form to stick in a substantial development, thus: A-B [B/A] – A1. In the B/A development, versions of the dreamy A theme and the brighter B theme sometimes twine around one another in the first and second violin parts. Mandl’s part of it typically rose from the harmony to take on more melodic profile, to partner the first violin. Mandl made his line dance in for a turn and kiss, then dance away into the background. Lovely.
Virtuoso flourishes assigned to the first violin in at the start of the Trio, set amid the Minuet, recur on the cello; Zitoun pounced on them with admirable vigor. The viola leads the series of amazing fugues in the finale. Hackett got them rolling with firm, energizing shoves that established momentum to carry on through to a bracing, satisfying finish.