The Blair String Quartet spent its Friday evening climbing musical mountains.
For its spring concert at Ingram Hall, the ensemble played only masterpieces. The final quartets of Beethoven and Brahms were both on the program. So was Shostakovich’s darkly emotional and autobiographical String Quartet No. 8. All three works received worthy readings.
Brahms once referred to his String Quartet No. 3 as “a useless trifle.” Lasting nearly 40 minutes, the work is hardly a bagatelle. But it is remarkably cheerful. The gruff Brahms, who was composing his darkly emotional Symphony No. 1 around the same time, probably did have a tendency to dismiss light-hearted music as unimportant.
The Blair Quartet approached this music as anything but trivial. They played the work as a whole with a beautifully blended sound that was never homogenous – there was clarity and character in every part. Violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard provided dashing fiddle work in the opening vivace, and they engaged in an expressive dialogue with violist John Kochanowski in the amorous andante. The entire ensemble played the finale, a theme and variations movement, with immediacy and folksy charm.
Reading extra-musical messages in the works of Dmitri Shostakovich became something of a cottage industry in the late 20th century. Some musicologists claimed to find sardonic protests in Shostakovich’s music where there probably were none.
That said, the String Quartet No. 8, which closed the first half, was one of the composer’s most overtly autobiographical works. The piece opens with a four-note motif that Shostakovich always used to represent himself. Moreover, it quotes music from numerous other Shostakovich works, such as the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, along with the protest song “Tormented by Grievous Bondage.” That song pretty much summed up the lives most Stalin-era artists (and anyone else who ended up on the wrong side of the NKVD).
The Blair Quartet gave this music a gripping – even chilling – reading. Cellist Felix Wang played the opening motif with dark foreboding. The ensemble followed the brooding opening movement with explosive, feverish playing in the second-movement allegro molto. The group’s performance of the fourth-movement’s famous three-note motif (often compared to the sound of the secret police banging on a door) with a force that was positively ominous.
For whatever reason, the Blair players’ tone seemed somewhat steely during the first half, which was effective in the Shostakovich and a bit off-putting in the Brahms. They played Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 135, with considerably more warmth. This was Beethoven’s last quartet, composed about six month before his death. Much has been written about the question Beethoven wrote above the fourth movement: “Must it be?” Beethoven writes over the slow introduction. “It must be,” he responded over the fast main section.
Was Beethoven writing about the inevitability of his own death? Most likely, he was just writing about the inevitability of his own music. As Leonard Bernstein once said, the genius of Beethoven was his ability to always know what note should come next. The Blair Quartet got this music exactly right, playing it with immediacy, grace and unrestrained joy. The performance won a much deserved standing ovation.