Review: Dover Quartet plays ‘Voices of Defiance,’ music of Ullmann, Laks and Shostakovich

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Reading the liner notes to the Dover Quartet’s “Voices of Defiance” before I listened to it was probably a mistake. They gave me the impression that the recording would be tough, unpleasant going.

The three pieces were written in three successive years during World War II. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, the centerpiece of the disc, in his dark and brooding wartime manner, was composed under the least desperate circumstances of the three, at a Soviet-led artist retreat in Ivanovo.

But Szymon Laks wrote his String Quartet No. 3 shortly after he was freed from Auschwitz, where he survived only because he supplied music for the Nazi guards and prisoners, many on the way to the gas chambers. And Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He left the manuscript there with a friend when he found out he was going to be transferred. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers on Oct. 18, 1944.

In his extensive and well written liner notes, Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover, interprets the music in the light of these and other facts, and rightly so. That is a note writer’s prerogative, even his duty. And I am not suggesting that we not know the stories behind these pieces, or that Shaw’s interpretation of aspects of the music in light of those stories is necessarily way off the mark.

But in the case of the quartets by Ullmann and Laks, I do not think that they can bear the burden of the stories behind them, and I feel it’s an open question what, exactly, the composers meant to express in them.

Less than 15 minutes in length (the second and final movement is less than three), Ullmann’s quartet isn’t expansive enough to express the desperation the composer must have felt when he was writing it. Ullmann’s piece is tightly knit and closely argued, serious and Bartókian, freely dissonant (there are some pseudo 12-tone sections) but basically tonal, ending, in fact, with major chords. “We know we have glimpsed into Ullmann’s great and powerful soul,” Shaw writes of the piece. Perhaps. At any rate, it’s a finely wrought string quartet.

Laks’s Third is, to my ears, a rather cheerful work, Bartók at his sunniest. The themes are Polish folk songs (forbidden at Auschwitz), and “their inclusion here,” writes Shaw, “sends a clear message: he is trying to find his way home.” This may or not be right, but it certainly leads Shaw to read a darkness into the slow movement that I do not hear. He calls it “one of the most impassioned and heartbreaking movements for string quartet.” I hear merely a kind of gorgeous melancholy.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 is his second longest, in four movements and lasting almost 36 minutes here. It is not encountered much, and its inclusion is most welcome. It is a fine piece, with typical Shostakovichian characteristics, including masterful counterpoint, folk tunes and simple melodies worked up to agitated and dissonant climaxes, and lonely, disenchanted solos. It ends unambiguously in minor.

In all, it’s a great, unhackneyed program, smartly unified and intellectually stimulating. What’s more, it is played beautifully by the Dover Quartet, a young ensemble that has quickly nabbed a spot in the vanguard of string quartets. Its virtuosity is of the type that doesn’t bring undue attention to itself, with warmly singing phrases and unhurried pace and polished tone that isn’t stretched to a breaking point. The pieces are laid out just so, detailed and expressive, and the ensemble breathes together. The recording — on the Cedille label, made in the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre — is first rate.

***

Here’s the finale of Szymon Laks’s String Quartet No. 3, played by the Dover Quartet.

Bruckner 8th: Wagner tubas

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, performed by Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony this week, requires eight (French) horn players, numbers 5-8 of whom are also required to double on a relatively rare instrument called the Wagner tuba, two on tenor Wagner tubas and two on bass Wagner tubas.

A Wagner tuba is really not a tuba at all, but rather an instrument quite similar to a French horn (and played by French horn players) but in a different shape. That different shape — with the bell up, for instance — does give it a slightly different sound than the French horn. Richard Wagner developed this instrument for use in the “Ring” cycle, it is said, to bridge a gap in the sound between the French horns and trombones. Afterwards, it was used in several orchestral works, including Bruckner’s symphonies 7-9, Strauss’s “An Alpine Symphony” and Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

In the video above, you will hear the French horn players of the Berlin Philharmonic having some fun with Bruckner excerpts on both French horn and Wagner tuba. They mostly play Bruckner’s 7th, but you’ll get the idea.

Interview: Carl St.Clair takes on Bruckner 8

Carl St.Clair

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 — massive, glowering, spiritual — is on the schedule this month for the first time in the history of Pacific Symphony. The performances, on Nov. 9-11, will also be the first anywhere for Music Director Carl St.Clair, who seems determined not to waste the opportunity.

“I’ve wanted to conduct this piece for many years, but it’s like Mahler 9, it’s like all the pinnacle works, you have to build up to them,” St.Clair said recently in an interview at the orchestra’s Irvine offices. Not only does he, as a conductor, need to build up to Bruckner’s Eighth, but so do the musicians and the audience, he says. Accordingly, St.Clair has added an extra rehearsal for the orchestra. He’s also devised a prelude to the performance of the Eighth that he hopes will prepare the audience to hear the work.

“You can’t white knuckle it down the 5 or the 405 and every time you come to a stop you look at your phone, you text somebody, you send an Instagram, you answer the phone. You valet park, you run in, you slosh down a glass of white wine and you rush to your seat and then you hear the music of Anton Bruckner — it’s impossible,” he says.

Instead, audience members will enter the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall before the performance as Gregorian chant is sung from the stage by the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael Abbey. Organist Christoph Bull will play organ music by Bach and Bruckner. Video artists Nick and Clemens Prokop will project visuals on three screens that evoke the interiors of the majestic St. Florian Monastery in Linz, where Bruckner served as organist and is buried. The lighting will be low.

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Miscellany

Herbert von Karajan

(Curated classical music news and views from around the internet.)

  • Classical musicians the world over know IMSLP (the free International Music Score Library); now the founder speaks….
  • The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is well underway; performances are about to begin….
  • You, too, can help save the house of Georges Bizet (in French)….
  • The soon-to-be-released complete recordings of Herbert von Karajan on Decca and Deutsche Grammophon are poised to set a Guinness record….
  • The Albany Symphony has just received a donation of $7 million; meanwhile the Detroit Symphony gets $15 million….
  • Critic Tim Page writes a review of the massive new biography of Toscanini….
  • Sarasota Orchestra’s music director Anu Tali is stepping down; her next stop (in December) is Pacific Symphony….
  • After 25 years as a trail-blazing music director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas will retire….