Monday, August 8, 2011

Miro Quartet in Concert

Living where I do, I don't see a lot of concerts, but Saturday night I went to see the Miro Quartet play in our chamber music festival. I wrote the program notes for all eleven of the premier series concerts and several people came up to say very nice things about them. The Miro Quartet, based in Austin, TX, gave four programs including everything from Haydn to Brahms to Philip Glass to a tango by Carlos Gardel. Saturday was the darkest of the four with three pieces all, in one way or the other, meditations on death. They began with Puccini's single movement Crisantemi, an elegy on the death of the Duke of Savoy. The rest of the first half was the 14th String Quartet by Shostakovich, his next to last. Much late Shostakovich seems to be a meditation on mortality and this is no different. In places it is music of a searing intensity, relieved by passages of Shostakovich's trademark sardonic grotesquerie. As I said to my composition student afterward, what always fascinates me about Shostakovich is his ability to write music that is certainly tonal, while at the same time avoiding all the easily discernible devices of the past: the audible sequences, familiar progressions and so on. I'm sure the Russian modes have something to do with it, but we will be analyzing Shostakovich for the next hundred years.

The second half of the concert was the Seven Last Words of Christ, commissioned by a canon of the Cathedral of Cadiz, by Haydn. A very unusual work, it consists of an overture and seven slow movements followed by a Presto earthquake for finale. It is fascinating to hear how Haydn manages to retain our interest despite the limitations. I often think that severe restrictions like this, or like those Bach imposes on himself in the Art of Fugue actually are a creative inspiration for composers. While mere self-indulgence in the name of creative freedom often leads to some rather bad music. I think that's what went wrong in the 19th century.

Let's listen to some of this music. First, Puccini:

Here are the three movements of the Shostakovich:

Finally, the Haydn:

Well, the first movement anyway. It takes a lot of digging to get all the movements and put them in the correct order, so I'll leave that up to you, gentle reader!

What do you think of this as a program? I'll confess that the reason I picked this program to attend over a number of others was twofold: there was a Shostakovich quartet and I will always go to hear that, and secondly, there was not a long 19th century quartet on the program. I just don't enjoy the lengthy meanderings of the Romantics in string quartets. They did very well with songs and orchestral music, but I find their efforts in chamber music, yes, even Schubert and Brahms, to be flabby and interminable. But none of that on this program, instead, Haydn. Very impressive piece, formerly more popular than it is now.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the program, so feel free. Oh, the quartet played very well. I thought some of the pizzicati were a little out of tune, but they played with both grace and passion and you can't ask for much more.

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