This opening concert of the new season was happily announced by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society as a sell-out. Even more happily, the performances by the St. Petersburg String Quartet should have left every member of that large audience with enough fond memories to last quite a while.
But it wasn't just the performances. The design of the program itself was eminently satisfying, passing from the predominantly desolate 1968 Shostakovich Quartet No. 12 at the start to the very opposite side of that composer's persona at the end, with the angular, herky-jerky and comical Polka from "The Age of Gold" as a most welcome encore. And in between, we had the elegance and lyrical beauty of Tchaikovsky's famous 1871 Quartet No. 1, followed by the virtually unknown 1898 Quartet No. 5 by Glazunov, a work of confidence and fluidity.
At the end there was no doubt that, like the incomparable 1993 all-Czech performance of the Janacek Quartet No. 2 by the Prazak String Quartet on the same series, the Russian musicians simply had this Russian music in their viscera.
The opening movement of the Shostakovich 12th was suffused with a sense of unease. It was bleak, groping and questioning, and was played with a vacuum of emotion which made it seem like a wasteland. You could feel the oppression in Shostakovich's life.
The concluding and much longer second movement was still dark, but animated. The Russians had a way of playing this music so that its center remained troubled but uncommitted, no matter how frenetic its outer edges seemed. The long musical expanse of venting frustration changed rapidly near the end, a strong pizzicato section leading circuitously back to the earlier mood of resigned despair, then unexpectedly lunging into a descending, rondo-like theme of totally unprepared joyousness.
With an elevated performance like this, it's easy to believe you were hearing the music as Shostakovich conceived it in his mind's ear during the act of composition.
On the heels of this, the suavity of the Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1 made an exquisite contrast. Its first movement was all sweetness and light, polish and courtly Russian manners. The performance was very cohesive and energetic, with first violinist Alla Aranovskaya's figurations over humming lower strings tossed off with exquisite grace and vitality.
Although there was an ideal technical ensemble and musical sympathy struck between Aranovskaya, second violinist Ilya Teplyakov, violist Konstantin Kats and cellist Leonid Shukaev, she also seemed to exude a special kind of leadership which consistently lifted the entire group onto some ineffable higher plane of expression.
In the celebrated Andante cantabile movement, Aranovskaya whispered the first entrance of the famous main theme in a very enticing way, which made her later repeat of the theme in a full throated lower register a fascinating contrast. In the Scherzo, the unanimity of both phrasing and varied weighting of bow strokes was remarkable. And in the Finale, the artists used widely contrasting dynamics to give unusual expressiveness to the alternating phrases, then capped it with a breathtaking prestissimo coda.
Glazunov (1865-1936) was one of the most skillful of all Russians in the pure art and craft of composition. In the hands of many other good ensembles I can see that his Quartet No. 5 might seem "interesting but perfunctory." But the commitment and passion of the St. Petersburgers for this music, undoubtedly being heard for the first time here, took us light years beyond the nuts and bolts of the quartet and into the more elusive realm of Glazunov's winning musical expressiveness.
These four string players always sound cohesive and balanced together, and Glazunov's art made the blend in his music also sound easy. The first movement's fugue was beautifully constructed, then mutated out of the contrapuntal mode into romantic development, the energetic Scherzo was capped by a delightful rallentando and pizzicato close, while the yearning expression of the slow movement was very emotional yet held carefully this side of melodrama.
The light, scampering Finale seemed to flow so easily, every phrase so natural a consequence of what had preceded it, concluding with a coda which lurches into fast triplets leading to a broad, rich chordal exclamation point.
St. Petersburg String Quartet
Opening concert of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society Series
Tuesday evening in Kleinhans' Mary Seaton Room.