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Penderecki Quartet Astonishes on Music Mountain

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 23rd, 2018

From left: Jerzy Kaplanek, Katie Schlaikjer, Christine Vlajk, Jeremy Bell, Victoria Schwartzman

The Penderecki Quartet, which has 27 discs under its belt, opened with Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 50 #6, nicknamed “The Frog,” due to its use of bariolage, the effect of alternately playing on two strings, one stopped and one open, sometimes unfairly derided as the “ribbet” effect. The opening appears to falter, yet is saved by the cello, superbly played in the lower register by Katie Schlaikjer, and then the first violin played by Jerzy Kapłanek took over with great authority to dominate the lead through four movements. There are some teasing pauses, as if to say: “Do you really want this piece of music to continue?” The third movement Menuetto is quite amusing, since it races in triple meter, nothing anyone can dance to. The use of bariolage appears to satirize a two- step dance. Haydn’s humor is gentle, whimsical, and delightful. Kapłanek was outstanding in his dynamics, rhythmic phrasing, and eloquent tone.  

Edvard Grieg’s only string quartet, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 was next. Strictly based upon Norwegian dance tunes, this work offers high Romanticism with great dynamic range. Progress remains serial rather than architectural, yet amid the series of dances Grieg appears to weep and celebrate on a personal level. There is an unusual correlation between Grieg’s deepest emotions and national aspirations, which run on mirrored tracks. Such welding of the personal within the larger social framework embodies the Romantic ideal of riding an associative wave of memory—as in the great memoirs of the Romantic era. Jeremy Bell on first violin soared and appeared to incarnate the voice of Grieg himself. Christine Vlajk on viola, Schlaikjer on cello, and Kaplanek on second violin articulated the voice of the people.

Violist Vlajk introduced Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 57, written at the age of 34, by complimenting the concisely written program notes and added a few comments.

After 1936 Shostakovich was under great pressure to produce a work that would be a public success because he had earned Stalin’s ire and condemnation with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a satiric opera based upon a famous short story by Nikolai Leskov which attacks petty corruption and gratuitous cruelty. The 1940 November quintet was an attempt to write a near-orchestral public piece to address a mass audience. The quintet begins with mourning for the fate of Poland, Denmark, France, and smaller countries; it paints the face of German aggression—those soldiers slain on the battlefield, the rape of conquered women, and their tragic national humiliation. This performance of lament was dedicated to the memory of Nick Gordon, Music Mountain’s director who passed away last October.

The resonant rise of Russian folkloric tunes by the strings in the third movement Scherzo raises the specter of war in Russia. Shostakovich clearly understood that Russia was the next to be invaded, even if Stalin did not think so at the moment. In the fourth movement muted strains of Russian victory offer hope for Europe and humankind. The role of the piano, which Shostakovich played on tour with the Beethoven Quartet, remains unusual. The piano often sounds like the disembodied voice of history that records or echoes the tragedy it observes, while the lives of the folk reverberate in the strings. Victoria Schwartzman on the Steinway captured that remote, haunting voice as the piano ran at the upper and lower register, as if the middle did not exist. Stalin immediately responded to the patriotic vein in Shostakovich’s quintet by bestowing 100,000 rubles on him, the largest financial award ever given in Russia for a chamber piece. The English parallel would be something like William Shakespeare’s Henry V.  

The astonishing aspect of this quintet lay in the strings. And the quintet was both serial and architectural while in its faith of Russia some doubts emerged: yet these were subdued nuances that never impeded the patriotic thrust. The viola and cello assert optimism whenever the violins and piano raise doubts. As in a symphony, there occurs a spectacular crescendo that slowly fades away into the second theme, which does then offer an exciting, rousing Finale.

In all three pieces played, the role of folk music was examined. Haydn was merrily mocking its use at court and country with genial wit; Grieg employed folk music to express his deepest feelings about the tragedy of his bed-ridden life and his unexpected triumph as the national voice of his country; Shostakovich employed folk motifs to object to the march of totalitarian history in Europe, and more subtlety inside his own country. I enjoy well-thought-out programs played with intensity and clarity.