Formed in 1991, the Quatuor Danel has been acclaimed for its fresh and exciting interpretations of the classics, its dedication to new music, and its passionate advocacy of two great Russian composers: Shostakovich and his friend Mieczysław Weinberg, including complete recorded cycles of both composers’ string quartets. While Shostakovich’s quartets are well known, this concert provides a rare opportunity to hear Weinberg’s Quartet No. 3, a work of magnificent concentration and intensity composed in 1944.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1805-1847)
String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847)
Allegro vivace assai
Finale: Allegro molto
MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 14 (1944)
Andante sostenuto attacca
DIMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 (1946)
Moderato con moto
Allegro non troppo
Marc Danel, Gilles Millet (violins) – Vlad Bogdanas (viola) – Yovan Markovitch (cello)
Upcoming recording projects of the Quatuor Danel will consist of the three Tchaikovsky quartets, Piano Quintet by Franck and a longer term project with the late Beethoven.
Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847)
The last of Mendelssohn's six string quartets was composed during August and September 1847 at Interlaken in Switzerland, a few months after the death of his beloved sister, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, who was herself a gifted composer. Written as an instrumental Requiem in Fanny’s memory, the quartet was completed shortly before Mendelssohn's own death and is his last major work. The first movement, written in sonata form, is defiant and agitated. The scherzo is most unlike Mendelssohn's usual style in movements of this kind: instead of the customary lightness and elfin grace of Mendelssohn’s scherzos, this is serious, dark and intense music. The deeply-felt Adagio is the emotional heart of the work, and of all the movements it is the one that is most obviously elegiac in character. The uneasy start of the finale, marked by syncopations and trills finds moments of lyricism (including some self-quotations) as well as outbursts of anger. Few works in Mendelssohn's output are as personal as this quartet, or so overtly emotional. Though Mendelssohn heard the work played privately, the first public performance took place after his death. It was given in Leipzig by a quartet led by Joseph Joachim at a memorial concert on November 4, 1848—the first anniversary of Mendelssohn's death.
It was unusual to choose the form of a string quartet for the expression of such a profound sense of loss, though composers before and after Mendelssohn have explored the deepest and most private emotions through the medium of the string quartet, including Beethoven (Op. 131), Smetana (“From my Life”), and Janáček (“Intimate Letters”)—to say nothing of later composers such as Weinberg and Shostakovich. Those closest to Mendelssohn certainly understood what he had attempted to create with the Op. 80 String Quartet. Ignaz Moscheles wrote that “the impassioned character of the whole work seems to be in keeping with his present frame of mind, shaken as he is to the heart’s core by the loss of his sister.” Mendelssohn’s friend Julius Benedict added that “It would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind, and of the most poetic melancholy, as does this masterly composition.”
Mieczysław Weinberg, String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 14 (1944)
Mieczsław (Moishe) Weinberg was born into a Jewish family in Warsaw, where his father was a conductor at the Yiddish theater and his mother acted in the company. As a boy, Weinberg played the piano for several productions at the same time as he was studying at the Warsaw Conservatory. He graduated in 1939 and moved to the Soviet Union when war broke out (his parents remained in Warsaw and perished in the Trawniki concentration camp). When Weinberg met Shostakovich the two composers quickly became friends and at Shostakovich’s urging, Weinberg moved to Moscow. From 1943 onwards, they shared ideas and influenced each other’s works (in particular, Shostakovich drew on Weinberg’s knowledge of Jewish music), and Shostakovich’s Tenth String Quartet was dedicated to Weinberg. While several of Shostakovich’s works were banned by the Stalin regime at various times in his career, Weinberg’s fate was rather different: his work was ignored by the authorities, and remained largely unperformed. Even so, he was never far from political danger: in 1948 his father-in-law was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, and in 1953 Weinberg himself was arrested for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” and Shostakovich had to intervene on his friend’s behalf with Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD (the secret police). After the death of Stalin, some of Weinberg’s works started to be performed, but it was only after Weinberg himself died in 1996 that the full extent of his output started to be explored, including several operas (among them The Passenger and The Idiot), 22 symphonies, and 17 string quartets. Pioneering advocacy by the Quatuor Danel led to the first complete recording of Weinberg’s quartets in 2008–2012.
Weinberg’s Third Quartet was composed in February 1944. It opens with furious energy that is maintained throughout most of the first movement, introducing a theme from which Weinberg derived several other ideas in this tautly organized quartet. The breathless pace relieved by a gentler and more lyrical second theme. Composed in sonata form, with a clear structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation, the movement ends with a coda that brings the music quietly but firmly back to D minor. The second movement opens with a stern idea in octaves over which the first violin weaves a theme that seems like a precursor of the finale of Shostakovich’s Third Quartet, composed two years later (in his recent PhD thesis on Weinberg, Daniel Elphick has noted striking parallels between the textures, rhythms, and even melodic patterns of these two works). The finale, the shortest of the three movements, opens with a quick but quiet theme that seems to wander at will through different keys. This provides the material for much of what follows, including a climactic restatement of the first theme. The final bars of the Quartet are unexpected: Weinberg brings back the music with which he ended the first movement to conclude the whole work.
Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 (1946)
Shostakovich began his Third String Quartet in January 1946 but made no progress beyond the second movement until May when he went with his family to spend the summer at a dacha (second home) in Komarovo near the Finnish border. According to Lavrentiy Beria (head of the Soviet secret police) in a letter to Shostakovich, this retreat along with a generous allowance to repair and decorate the building was a personal gift from Stalin. It was certainly a productive summer at Komarovo as the quartet was completed on August 2, 1946. The same day Shostakovich wrote to Vassily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet: “Here I have finished my new Quartet. It seems to me that I have never been so pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. I am probably wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.…I would ask that you and the other members of the Beethoven Quartet accept my dedication of this work to you, for while working on it, I thought all the time about you and about the fine things you have done for me.” The Beethoven Quartet—the ensemble with which Shostakovich worked most closely on his string quartets—gave the first performance in the small hall of the Moscow Conservatory on December 16, 1946. Though there was an ominous silence about the work from official critics, Shostakovich’s reputation was still high among the nation’s leaders: on December 28, twelve days after the premiere of the quartet, he was given the Order of Lenin and each member of the Beethoven Quartet received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. And in a book about the composer published in 1947, Daniel Zhitomirsky wrote that “by its rich and multi-faceted content, the Third Quartet surpasses all previous chamber works by the composer. It is an entire world of romantic feelings, where the beauty of bright ‘naïve’ daydreams exists side by side with austere patriotic passion, with grief and heroism.” Such positive assessments were short-lived, and just a year later the Third Quartet attracted official disapproval, denounced in the journal Sovetskaya musika as “modernist and false music.”
Shostakovich himself never wavered in his belief in the work. In 1950 he gave a copy of the score to Edison Denisov, writing to him that “I consider the Third Quartet one of the most successful of my works.” It was also one which clearly meant a great deal to the composer—whatever its unspoken private meaning might have been. When the Beethoven Quartet played the work to Shostakovich at a rehearsal in the 1960s, the viola player Fyodor Druzhinin recalled that it was played through without any interruptions or comments from the composer. Druzhinin remembered the occasion as the one time the Beethoven Quartet saw Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. At the end of the performance the composer “sat in silence like a wounded bird, and tears were flowing down his face. It was the only time I saw Shostakovich so defenseless and exposed.”
At some point, probably for the first public performances, Shostakovich may have provided programmatic titles for each movement (or they may have been written by someone else entirely). These subtitles suggest that the quartet was intended to tell a kind of war story: “Calm unawareness of future cataclysm”. “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation,” “The forces of war unleashed,” Homage to the dead,” and “The eternal question: Why? And for what?” According to the Shostakovich scholars Laurel Fay and Judith Kuhn, these subtitles are not on the original manuscript or the first edition, and nor are the mentioned in reminiscences of those who worked closely with the composer. Quite the reverse, in fact: Valentin Berlinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet, remembered a vodka-fueled evening during which Shostakovich insisted that there was “no program for this Quartet,” although he added that the first movement depicted the peace and calm of Soviet life before the outbreak of war. It is surely right to assume that Shostakovich had no overt program in mind, but just as clearly he invested a great deal of private emotion in the work—sufficient, as Druzhinin tells us, to move the composer to tears twenty years after he had written it.
The first movement, in F Major, opens in a way that recalls the Haydn-like mood of the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1945). The first theme is introduced by the first violin, and this is followed by a contrasting idea, played pianissimo. The development section includes some turbulent fugal writing, injecting a sense of unease that hovers over the rest of the movement. The Moderato con moto is in E minor, based on a series of obstinate and sinister ostinato figures and frequent repetitions. The third movement is a violent, sometimes grotesque scherzo in G-sharp minor. The Adagio is an extended passacaglia (ground bass) of great emotional power and this gives way to the closing Moderato in which—finally—some kind of enigmatic resolution is found in the closing bars as the music settles on to a sustained F Major chord over which the first violin plays an eloquent melody, then three pizzicato F Major chords that bring the work to its quiet conclusion.
Nigel Simeone, 2017