Musical Opinion, October 2012
Some, at least, of Shostakovich’s string quartets have long since entered the mainstream, and thanks to the complete recording of the Weinberg quartets by the Quatuor Danel on CPO that cycle, too, is no longer terra incognita, even if they’re still rarities in the concert hall. Still, the number of string quartets by other Russian or Soviet composers that have yet to get a public hearing in Britain is ear-boggling. Between them Filippenko, Galynin, Karamanov, Knipper, Levitin, Peyko, Polovinkin, Salmanov, Steinberg and Zolotarev – to take just the first ten names that come to mind – produced close on fifty. One of the most distinguished quartet-cycles awaiting a British airing is that of the six by Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010), the First, his Op. 8, dating from 1957, and the Sixth, Op. 148, from 2007. That the Fifth, Op. 90 (1984), came to be heard in Pushkin House, the Bloomsbury home of Russian culture in London, on 31 October was thanks to Edward Clark. In St Petersburg in 2007 to organise the First British Music Festival there, Clark was invited to supper chez Tishchenko and was given the scores of his (then) five quartets; he promised the composer to get at least one of them performed and duly kept his word. The composer may not have lived to enjoy the occasion, but he was there symbolically: the Villiers String Quartet was playing from the parts he gave Clark back in St Petersburg.
It’s a seriously good piece. The naïve folk-style of the opening soon evolves into lyrical counterpoint, unfolding over a walking bass. Echoes of Shostakovich are omnipresent, not least in the gently rollicking pace, the mild dissonance of the harmony and the understated satirical tone, as if the music can’t quite take itself seriously. The second part of the ten-minute first movement is given over to extensive contrapuntal development, with the opening material threaded through it. The eight-minute central movement begins with a shy and hesitant question-and-answer session between the first violin and the rest of the quartet, before the cello takes the limelight in an extended solo, followed by the second violin and then the viola. A broad chordal passage then affirms the quality of the music under discussion before the return of the opening. The final movement, eleven minutes in duration, opens with a duo between the first violin and the cello, the one chirruping, the other elegiac; the others then join in, pushing the material in different directions, and an ardent violin solo emerges, with harmonics from the second sounding as if from a different world. The chirruping figure returns more insistently, and the music barrels forward in the kind of cartwheeling allegro encountered elsewhere in Tishchenko’s output, but it is soon replaced by a fast, slightly wrong-footed waltz that veers off course. After an emphatic passage of close, fast, stomping chords, an urgent cello solo attracts supporting comment from the rest of the quartet. The second harmonics return to change the direction of the music, with a sweet first-violin solo over a chugging cello. The pace now winds down, leaving the last word to the chirruping figure in the first violin.
In the second panel of the programme the Villiers String Quartet was joined by Julian Gallant in an admirable performance of the Shostakovich Quintet: feisty, frank, uninhibited, with the enjoyment plain on the faces of the musicians instantly communicated to the audience. The same untrammelled commitment had been evident in the Villiers’ handling of the Tishchenko. Musicians sometimes respond to unfamiliar music with cautious performances, but not these musicians and not this performance: it made the case for the work with conviction and confidence.
Let’s hear it for the shorter concert, too: there are early-evening and late-evening concerts of about an hour apiece, but not many mid-evening events that give you enough music to think about and then free you for a drink and dinner afterwards. It’s something to be encouraged.