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Shostakovich at dramatic best

Fifty years ago, the general consensus was that the most significant 20th century contribution to the string quartet literature was Bela Bartok's six quartets. But since then, the 15 quartets of Shostakovich have emerged to rank at least equal to those of Bartok, this despite the fact that many of them contain a bitterness that might have ruffled the Soviet authorities and had to be suppressed until well after Stalin's death.

Now fully appreciated, Shostakovich's quartets speak with a simplicity and wit, coupled with a sarcasm, anguish and autobiographical pain resulting from years of political oppression.

The directness and power of Shostakovich's quartets sweep most audiences into rapt, almost hypnotic attention. This explains how his 1960 Quartet No. 7, only some 12 minutes in duration, could hold its own as the physical and emotional centerpiece of Tuesday's BCMS concert by the Cecilia Quartet, whose members are four talented young Canadian women.

Composed as a memorial to Shostakovich's wife, Nina, the work nonetheless opens with a wry, almost playful descending theme. This is sweet sarcasm, almost a reminiscent denial of the fact that the marriage had not been trouble-free. The pensive central Lento is a brief, whispered interlude, a prelude to the turbulent fugal finale that hurls angst in every direction but at the close subsides into an unexpected, winsome waltz, which Russian critic Victor Ledin describes as " a kind of last dance with his dearly departed wife."

The Cecilia performance caught all these conflicting emotions with a great sense of drama, proving that Shostakovich's shortest quartet is nonetheless one of his most pungent.

Bracketing Shostakovich's 20th century volatility were examples of late 18th century classicism and lush 19th century romanticism.

Haydn's 1799 Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2 demonstrates how masterfully the composer had learned to color and to emotionally inflect his great last quartets with adventurous key modulations. The artists brought out the bouncy and wholly captivating lyrical line of the opening Allegro, adding some captivating dramatic lunges into the mix.

The seldom-heard 1895 Dvorak Quartet in G Major, Op. 106 concluded the concert on a disappointing note. This is mature Dvorak. It radiated robust sonority and Bohemian warmth in the long opening movement, rich resonance and ravishing harmonic changes in the slow movement, and folk-like rhythmic pulses in the scherzo. But for all these Dvorak fingerprints, the music seemed episodic, almost as though put together from spare parts, and lacked the composer's usual abundance of memorable themes. In addition, frequent solo lines revealed a viola whose sound was raw and grainy, a mismatch with the other instruments.


Cecilia String Quartet    

Presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society.

Tuesday evening in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle.