Musical ambassadors don’t come much finer than the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. The jewel in the crown of embattled Venezuela’s much-imitated music education program El Sistema, it has played to enthusiastic audiences and critical acclaim around the world. Essentially a youth orchestra, its artistic director is the equally youthful maestro of the moment Gustavo Dudamel, chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The all-male Simón Bolívar String Quartet, comprising the leaders of the respective string sections of the orchestra, and appearing at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the tail end of a long Australian tour, chose a loosely “Russian” themed program of Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich, three giants amongst quartet composers and equally three of the most prolific composers for the genre.
Haydn is credited with having invented the string quartet format of 2 violins, viola and cello. He himself played in a quartet with none other than Mozart, the elder music statesman playing violin to the younger Salzburger’s viola. Each composer, though a generation apart, influenced the other markedly and indeed Mozart dedicated a set of six quartets to Haydn. Haydn’s Op 33 quartets from 1781, are most commonly known as the “Russian” quartets – putatively written for the Grand Duke Paul of Russia. The SBSQ played the fourth of the six quartets, the four-movement B flat major. Much of Haydn’s quartet writing at this stage is dominated by the first violin, and in this regard the quartet was ably led by Alejandro Carreño’s unforced easy lyricism. His confreres became more equal participants in the light-hearted textures of the typically humorous finale that culminates in a surprise pizzicato ending.
Then followed what is the most anguished and arguably most autobiographical of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets – No 8, composed in just three days in 1960. In five inter-connected movements, it is replete with quotations from other works by the Soviet composer – various symphonies, the second piano trio, the cello concerto and more besides – and features Shostakovich’s own personal motif “DSCH” throughout. Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is the perfect acoustic for chamber music of this nature and the SBSQ reveled in its spacious resonance. This was a realization that seamlessly shifted from the intimate, elegiac melancholy of the opening movement to later textures that reflected more starkly Shostakovich’s inner turmoil – not only had he recently returned from war-devastated Dresden, Shostakovich himself was seriously ill and moreover, much to his chagrin, had reluctantly joined the Communist Party. With perfect unanimity of purpose the quartet then captured the utter despair of the final movement leaving an appreciative audience somewhat enervated, much as the composer himself had been on hearing its first performance by the Borodin Quartet.
As he pretty much did with every musical form, Beethoven revolutionised the quartet genre, and at the time of the composition of the Razumovsky Quartets even speculated to his publisher that he could envisage dedicating the rest of his composing days exclusively to quartets – a prophecy that was indeed to eventuate, but some twenty years later.
The three quartets Op. 59, were commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky – Russian Ambassador to Vienna – in what was to prove a particularly fecund year for Beethoven. 1806 was the year not only of the Fourth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, but also revisions for Fidelio as well as two of its eventual four overtures. In tonight’s quartet, No 2 in E minor, perhaps in deference to his patron, Beethoven quotes a Russian folk tune in the third movement – a folk tune that would later be used by Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov), Arensky, and Rachmaninoff (in the slighter piano duet Slava).
A youthfully exuberant reading greeted the opening movement, yet it remained nonetheless persuasive for being so, as the SBSQ realized the complexity of its harmonic and thematic integration with aplomb. The deeply moving, sustained chorale-like arches of the slow movement were carefully crafted and were indeed played con molto di sentimento, eliciting appreciative applause from a large segment of the audience. The following Allegretto, almost Brahmsian in its rhythm, and with its pass-the-parcel enunciations of the theme russe in the central maggiore section, was equally deft in execution. A spirited, yet always firmly controlled reading of the Hungarian-style Presto finale brought the quartet and the formal program to a close.
Deservedly rapturous applause ensued, hopefully enough to entice the Simón Bolívar String Quartet to return again soon – perhaps next time with the rest of their symphonic colleagues in tow. That would be a concert not to miss!
Glenn Riddle reviewed the Simón Bolívar String Quartet at the MRC on May 15, 2017.