Shostakovich: through the lens of the string quartet | Flinders Quartet

Inspired by the gift of Wendy Lesser’s biography of Dmitri Shostakovich and his string quartets, Flinders Quartet again joined forces with Richard Piper to curate a selection of movements from these fifteen quartets to illuminate the shape and sound of the composer’s life and career. Referencing their previous collaboration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Piper quotes the memoir comparing Shostakovich’s quartets to Shakespeare’s sonnets in their intimate emotion.

In true Flinders Quartet fashion, this program combines a bit of the theatrical with the instrumental as the audience enters to the garbled mumbling of a radio, perched next to a portrait of Shostakovich, which will remain throughout the concert with a watchful gaze. The quartet play full movements and excerpts from Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets as a concise string quartet cycle with quotations read by Piper from biographies, fictionalisations, and letters about the composer. These quotations balance the historical context of Stalinist Russia against the personal and musical life of Shostakovich including stories about his marriages, friendships, and political engagement.

This collection of pieces played together offer a unique curation of Shostakovich’s style and illuminates various favoured patterns. Often the compositions set up a familiar romantic rhythm only for it to fracture into a cacophony of sounds. In particular, “String Quartet No. 2 Op. 68” exemplified Shostakovich’s tendency to place a tightly wound violin overtop a taut and tense background drone from the other strings before the cello mellowed the movement. “String Quartet No. 3 Op. 73” additionally showed the composer’s interest in playful contrasts with racing and stomping forward momentum that evokes physical and emotional engagement from the players and audience alike.

Between the concerts two halves, it appears the pieces lose their pretty lightness over the course of Shostakovich’s career as he begins to explore darker matters. “String Quartet No. 10 Op. 118” argues that the composer creates his best work when he strikes out at boldness with combinations of plucking and aggressive slashing violin that break up the dramatic building melodies. Near the end, “String Quartet No. 13 Op. 138” takes a slight turn by centring the viola, a piece Shostakovich dedicated to the original violist of the Beethoven Quartet, a quartet of Moscow Conservatory graduates who frequently played Shostakovich’s work. In this piece, there is also liberal use of col legno, a technique of tapping the instrument with one’s bow, which is an unusual sound and here is nervous and unsettling.

The playing style of this concert is customary of Flinders Quartet’s attention to detail and individual personalities. Many of the pieces in this program lean heavily on Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba’s violin and he plays with a precise and intense investment. His partner violin, played by Nicholas Waters, characterises the more theatrical and playful attitude of the quartet’s performances. Helen Ireland and Zoe Knighton on viola and cello serve as the foundation for the sometimes flighty violins and always provide steady and consistent playing.

The collaboration between Flinders Quartet and Richard Piper once again proves fruitful in this bespoke homage to the 20th century Russian.

Shostakovich: through the lens of the string quartet was played at the Independent Theatre on July 28th and will continue to Victoria August 4th – 5th

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