A Shostakovich concert for one

Rostislav Dubinsky was the founding first violinist of the Borodin Quartet, who worked intimately with Shostakovich in preparing performances and recordings of all of his fifteen string quartets. I studied chamber music with him at Indiana University from 1986-8. Possibly the greatest concert I’ve ever been to was a performance of Shostakovich’s Blok Romances at IU with him, my teacher, Fritz Magg and Dubinsky’s wife Luba. His memoir, Stormy Applause, includes this telling story about the Third String Quartet of Shostakovich and his friend, the great violinist David Oistrakh in 1973, after the fourth of five heart attacks, the last of which killed him in October, 1974.

When we flew into Heathrow Airport, the first news we had was about Oistrakh: serious heart trouble had caused him to cancel all his concerts. We had a daytime concert in St. James’s Church, practically right after the plane landed, and after that, without stopping at our rooms, we went directly to see Oistrakh.

“David Dedorovich,” I said, “we’d like to play a little for you, if you’re not too tired.”

“Oh, I’d be very glad. But only if you’re not too tired yourselves.”

We got our instruments, set up our music stands, and sat. down.

In an artificial voice, as if addressing an audience from a stage, I said, “We shall play the third quartet of Shostakovich in F-major, Opus 73, in five movements, the fourth and fifth to be performed without intermission. The quartet was written in 1944.”

Oistrakh looked at us, smiling. We started to play…

The Third is Shostakovich’s best quartet, written in his wartime period. A lot of sorrow had accumulated for the Russian intelligentsia during these years of Soviet rule, from the 1917 Revolution until the beginning of the war in 1941. And it was only during the war that it found its emotional outlet. This was particularly true in music. Like Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, this quartet was officially touted as anti-Fascist. But it was in essence anti-Soviet, a disturbing musical tale about the destruction of Russian culture.

The first movement of the quartet is a perfect sonata allegro, the last bright day before an irredeemable misfortune.

The second: gathering clouds and the approach of disaster.

The third: the wild triumph of evil.

The fourth: a funeral march, a prayer for those who have perished.

The fifth: a sorrowful, moving story about Shostakovich himself and his pain and anxiety about the future of humanity.

We never played any concert as we did that evening for that one sick man. In the fourth movement Berlinsky, who was seated facing Oistrakh, started making sings to me. I glanced at Oistrakh. He was lying with his eyes closed, tears running down his cheeks. Tamara (his wife) brought him some medicine, but he gently pushed her hand aside. In the finale, where the last muted chord is like an unearthly choir against whose background the first violin rises higher and higher and disappears, we made a long diminuendo, and the silence that followed was just like a continuation of the music. We sat without moving.

“Thank you so much,” said Oistrakh, very softly. “It’s the music of a genius and you play it marvellously.”

He closed his eyes again. “Do you think I’ll ever be able to play the violin again?” His voice trembled slightly.

“Don’t be silly, “said Tamara quickly, and started crying again.

“Really, that’s silly,” we all began at once. “You were just working too hard and your heart told you it needs a rest. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

The Surrey Mozart Players, conducted by KW,  will play Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet in the version for chamber orchestra by former Borodin Quartet violist and conductor, Rudolf Barshai  on  Saturday, April 23rd, 2007 at 7:30 PM in the Electric Theatre, Guildford. Barshai, with Shostakovich’s blessing and guidance, prepared chamber orchestra versions of the Third, Fourth, Eight and Tenth quartets.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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