St. Petersburg String Quartet and Daniel Epstein at Music Mountain

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The St. Petersburg String Quartet
The St. Petersburg String Quartet

Music Mountain, Falls Village, Connecticut, Sunday June 15, 3 PM
Special Benefit Concert for the Operating Fund

St. Petersburg String Quartet
Alla Aranovskaya, first violin
Alla Krolevich, second violin
Boris Vayner, viola
Leonid Shukayev, cello
Daniel Epstein, piano, replacing Charles Rosen

Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10 (1893)
Shostakovich: String Quartet #12 in D Flat Major, Opus 133 (1968)
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Opus 44 (1842)

Music Mountain has offered extraordinary chamber music since 1930, when it was founded as a summer home for the Gordon String Quartet. Audiences loyally drive up the winding country road to enjoy the beauty of the grounds and its surroundings, its long, narrow hall with its superb acoustics, and the major chamber groups who play there. Jazz is also a major component of the season, and there is also choral music. On the lawn which spreads out down the hillside from Gordon Hall, you will also find a tent with books for sale, a snack bar, wooden benches under the trees, as well as some rather funky abstract sculptures. There had been a violent storm the week before, which snapped the trunks of several large trees surrounding the lawn. The season, called “Borrowed Melody” this year, because works with themes borrowed from outside sources or the composer’s own works will be worked into most of the programs, got off to a strong start with a special benefit concert featuring the great St. Petersburg String Quartet. Charles Rosen was to have joined them for the Schumann Piano Quintet. He was unfortunately unable to play, but Daniel Epstein filled the gap with intelligence and sensitivity.

The St. Petersburg String Quartet, formerly the Leningrad Quartet, is, I believe, one of the greatest. It was founded by its three remaining original members in 1985. Violist Boris Vayner joined them in 2005. This summer they will do the rounds of American and European festivals, including the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and, fortunately, two more concerts at Music Mountain, the first on August 3 and the second September 7. There style is both rigorous and relaxed: they tend to adopt moderate tempi, avoid excessively demonstrative gestures, but they are flexible as well, both in pace and in allowing the individual players plenty of latitude for individual expression. Their sound is somewhat dark, not sumptuous, but, in its own way, rich, calling up associations with burnished steel. Their textures are clear, and their sense of rhythm is powerful, enhanced by their careful, occasionally emphatic attention to rests.

Their reading of Debussy’s string quartet was marked by this strong rhythmic sense and attention to detail, focussing on short phrases, which never allowed any passage to drift into impressionistic vagueness. Pierre Boulez would certainly approve of their approach. Their control of the ebb and flow of dynamics developed the climaxes of the first movement in just the right places. The pizzicato sound in the second movement was extraordinary, and their liveliness always well-grounded. The Andantino was perfectly judged, enhanced by Boris Vayner’s expressive solo passages. Alla Aranovskaya made the most of her dark sound in her beautifully phrased melodic lines in the last movement. This was a large-scale, solidly constructed performance—and entirely satisfying one.

In 1968, when Shostakovich completed his Quartet No. 12, he displayed a certain interest in serial music, which he introduced into both the quartet and into his Violin Sonata, which he complete hard upon it. The first movement, a sort of introduction to the much longer second movement, begins with a twelve-tone row, which he develops in a more traditional tonal way, once he establishes the work’s main tonality of D flat major. As generally in his string quartets Shostakovich balances unified ensemble work with expressive solo passages, which give each player a chance to take the music individually upon themselves, a task for which the St. Petersburg Quartet is ideally suited. There are also some extraordinary timbre, realized by players with astonishing mastery and imagination. Ms. Aranovskaya in her extended pizzicato passage produced a sound occasionally suggesting a mandolin and at other times a plucked piano string. Later, when they had returned to their bows, she was joined by Ms. Krolevich in the strange keening duet, which they never pushed so far as to hint at screaming. Mr. Vayner and Mr. Shukayev also had ample opportunity to exploit their expressive gifts.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet was one of his few works that was extremely popular in his own lifetime. When he and Clara visited new prospective patrons they always brought it along to counterbalance the puzzlement aroused by some of his more exploratory or eccentric pieces. And its appeal is as strong today, with its upbeat mood, grand gestures, and even gypsy-like passages, which hint of Brahms. Not that there isn’t a great deal for the connoisseur in its subtle textures and complex cross-rhythms. The quartet was very much at the center of this reading, maintaining a grounding and direction-giving role, which Daniel Epstein was careful not to disturb. He took care through the piece not to come forward unless his music was absolutely at the center of attention. In those passages he was not at all shy about taking a dominant role. Schumann’s interweaving of the keyboard and the ensemble are more subtle and complex than in the Piano Concerto, which he also composed around the same time, the early 1840’s. Once again the St. Petersburg Quartet’s solidity and rhythmic clarity was just what the music needs. They began the first movement in a rather moderate tempo, taking a marked rallentando for the lyrical second subject, which gradually picked up momentum again. The Quartet and Mr. Epstein adopted an exploratory approach to the second movement, delving deep into its subtleties. To the sombre march theme they brought a full consciousness of its rhythm and the interplay of piano and strings. They created a wonderful floating quality in the slower lyrical section which follows. The Quartet’s realization of the texture of the scherzo was a marvel, with Boris Vayner once again producing striking dusky tones, when his part came to the fore. The final movement was grand and expansive, again benefitting from a strong, steady rhythmic drive. Most impressive was their rallentando and pianissimo in the coda, leading up to the final cadence.

Overall the St. Petersburg Quartet brought a great sense of structure to all three works. Their tempo fluctuations were not only expressive. Their extraordinarily appealing sound was enhanced by the intimate acoustics of Gordon Hall. One has the feeling almost of being inside the music in some uncanny way.

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