By Philippa Kiraly
The Phiharmonia Quartett Berlin needs no introduction to devotees of chamber music, with more than a quarter century of performances behind it and a reputation as one of the best.
Playing at Meany Theater last night on the UW International Chamber Music Series, it gave performances of Shostakovich, Beethoven and Debussy that were arresting, thought provoking and illuminating.
Why? In Steven Lowe’s admirable program notes, he describes the first two works with words of force in several places, such as, “slashing, commanding chords” (Beethoven), “nightmarish, scratchy” (Shostakovich), and his notes seemed perfectly in tune with what we often expect from both these composers.
Yet what we got was far from this. The program order was changed to begin with the one-movement Shostakovich Quartet No. 13. Yes, we do expect eerieness and terror captured in his music. This reading of the long Adagio was more one of deep sadness, of grieving, morphing into a feeling of waiting, not anticipatory waiting, but more a resigned wait. At first I was thinking of hopeless people waiting in lines. Later I remembered that the composer was not at all well, that this was only a few years before his death, and it could have been that type of waiting mingled with the other.
The Berliners played quietly much of the time with dissonances creeping in almost to mar what had been serene to that moment. There were episodes of intensity, of a sense of impatience, and more forceful chords as well as tones so quiet they were only just audible as a thread of sound. The four musicians played with beautiful, singing tone throughout, never a scratch or harsh moment. Not at all what we expect from Shostakovich most of the time, but the effect was profound. I’d like to hear it again, played like this.
Beethoven’s Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No 2, one of the Rasoumovsky quartets, also received an unusual interpretation. This was not way out as in the idiosyncratic performances we sometimes hear at the hands of technically brilliant young performers who have recently cut loose from their mentors and are now doing things their way.
Again, this was thoughtful, often quiet, but there was a clarity to it which made it easy to follow each musican’s line, and essentially, Beethoven’s developing ideas and harmonies as he gives them to one instrument and then another. The playing was spacious within the beat, but like the Shostakovich, there was emphasis, singing and color without hacking and rarely at a full forte. The whole was like seeing a portrait that has been cleaned of the accretions of years.
Debussy fared equally well, in his only quartet. It was played with this same approach, sounding more modern than the Shostakovich of some 77 years later. Here, it was the dissonances and modulations, the lack of formal shape unheard of in Debussy’s day, which came to the fore, leaving today’s listener aware of how far out, how strange this must have seemed in 1893.
For an encore, the Quartet played a movement from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet.
Not every work nor every performance is enhanced by the “less is more” approach, but the insights and clear vision this concert gave of the works performed makes one wish for more performances like this.