Beethoven | String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74 (Harp)
I. Poco adagio - Allegro
II. Adagio ma non troppo
III. Presto - Più presto quasi prestissimo
IV. Allegretto con variazioni
Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118
II. Allegretto furioso
IV. Allegretto – Andante
Sasha Callahan and Megumi Stohs Lewis, violins
Alexander Vavilov, viola
Leo Eguchi, cello
“When the path ignites a soul,
there’s no remaining in place.
The foot touches ground,
but not for long.”
- Hakim Sanai
It’s tempting to trace a neat line through the events of a composer’s life and chart a path that seems to have been inevitable. With the benefit of our modern day perspective we peer back through centuries and marvel at the majestic arc the music of Beethoven or Shostakovich seems to fall into. Tracing this arc is, after all, what our 15-year exploration of their quartets is all about. I often wonder how different our experience of this music could be if we had no knowledge of what’s around the bend.
In the 7th year of our journey, we find ourselves at a fascinating and very similar spot in the paths of both of these geniuses. Both were at the zenith of their creative power and by then had firmly established their voices. As Beethoven sat down to write his 10th quartet in 1809, he had already tasted plenty of success with his first six symphonies, and had just landed a lavish contract from three of the most powerful Viennese aristocrats, who joined forces to lure him back to Vienna. In 1964 Shostakovich was even further ahead in his career, having completed thirteen symphonies and a vast majority of his most important works by the time his 10th quartet landed on paper.
Remarkably, both seem to have approached their respective 10th quartet as a celebration of the compositional style they had championed to date. It is as if each man took a bit of time to ponder all the innovations of his previous quartets, assessed everything he deemed best about his past labors, and created a quintessential masterpiece assimilating the greatest accomplishments of the preceding works. In both cases the result was a truly glorious quartet full of vitality, yet in each we detect a certain strain of expression, especially apparent in the middle movements.
The scherzo movements in both are stormy, which is not new to either composer, but the level of turbulence is cranked up way past what a string quartet would normally be expected to handle. Beethoven’s aim seems to be at the intensity of his 5th symphony, no less, and in Shostakovich’s version the tension builds so much towards the end of the movement that the usual intricacy of his part writing is dropped in favor of brash, exasperated gestures. The slow movements of each quartet are otherworldly and complex, yet remarkable in their ability to hold the earth-bound and the spiritual in balance. Shostakovich recreates the form and spirit of the mournful passacaglia of his 8th symphony, while Beethoven’s blend of simplicity and lyricism clearly foreshadows every slow movement to come in his “late period”.
As we marvel at these creations, we can’t resist glimpsing a sharp curve in the path just ahead for each composer. Unbeknownst to them, this was the last time either would write a quartet in a standard, balanced form. We now know that Beethoven’s quartets are about to take a dive off a high cliff of experimentation, revolutionizing the genre yet again, while Shostakovich’s music will feel increasingly more stratospheric, preoccupied with mortality as his own health declines. The two quartets we are exploring this year might foreshadow these developments, but for the most part they bask in the solstice of the “middle period,” enjoying the balanced architecture and stability of form both Beethoven and Shostakovich employed to contain the enormous intensity of their message.
~ Alexander Vavilov