Thursday, October 20, 2011

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 2

Today I want to look at the third quartet in F major. It is twice as long as the first, about half an hour in duration. There are five movements:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Moderato con moto,
  3. Allegro non troppo,
  4. Adagio, attacca
  5. Moderato
The quartet was written in 1946 and premiered in December of that year by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow. The first movement is in sonata form, meaning that themes are presented in the first part, developed in a second part and return in a third part. The second, development section here is in the form of a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects). The mood of this movement, at the beginning, is of a Haydnesque pastoral innocence. Here is the first movement played by the Borodin Quartet:

The second movement is an eerie and obsessive waltz in E minor. It begins with an ostinato in the viola--the three notes repeated over and over that accompany the violin melody.

The third movement is a favorite with both musicians and audiences. It is an energetic and very Russian scherzo with canonic elements in G sharp minor. Here is a terrific film of a terrific performance by the Emerson Quartet:

The slow fourth movement is a synthesis of funeral march and passacaglia. The passacaglia form is one that Shostakovich will turn to many times when he wants a movement that is both emotionally powerful and dark in mood. The passacaglia was originally a processional dance from early 17th century Spain with a repeating bass line in triple time. In the hands of composers like Bach it became a very serious set of variations over a ground bass. Composers have made use of it ever since, in particular Brahms and Shostakovich. Whereas most passacaglias, such as the monumental one in the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, grow ever more agitated and intense, this one seems to simplify, ending up finally with a spare texture and then a long-held note that leads to the last movement. Here is the Borodin Quartet:

The last movement begins very tentatively with a cello theme accompanied by furtive plucking, but ultimately returns to the confidence of the first movement. Along the way are many twists including the return of the passacaglia to add emotional complexity. It ends with three F major chords, plucked, dying away into silence. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet:

Quite a journey...

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