Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 44

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the English National Opera, London

40th Anniversary Concert; Quartets nos. 1, 6, and 15

Orango – Prologue

Barbican’s Shostakovich Day


Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the English National Opera, London
26 September to 20 October 2015 (eight performances)
Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, Director/Set Designer Dmitri Tcherniakov

Thinking back to the 1987 production of Lady Macbeth at ENO (produced by David Pountney and designed by Stefanos Lazaridis), one of the most shockingly brilliant aspects was the sheer visual brutality—hunks of animal suspended from gigantic hooks above stark steel gantries—in a blatant allegory of the dirt grey mindlessness of provincial 19th-century Russia (brilliantly projected into the 1930s by Shostakovich). In addition, this theatre version of the opera was a revelation to most English opera-goers at that time, unaware of just how venomous Shostakovich’s inhumane, highly affecting adaptation of Leskov’s novel really could be. This 2015 production is a co-production with Opéra de Lyon and previously ran at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf in 2008, with seemingly few changes in the interim. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov also created the design for the production, whose action takes place in and around the offices and packing bays of a nondescript small enterprise: factory logistics adjoin a glass-sided office equipped with desks and a bland array of secretarial desktop equipment. All of which presents a canvas of pale banality, of mindless routine, albeit with a stifled sense of precariousness. Centre stage—a carpet lined, cocoon-like space: a cage without bars whose opening was sufficiently narrow to conceal any likely furnishing (a bed, for example). Only the heavy, oriental rugs and a single, swinging light bulb suspended centrally above the internal area constitute any form of decor. The majority of the opening arias take place here, and as the opera develops this “cell” remains a place to which Katerina is confined, threatened, seduced and where ultimately dastardly deeds take place.

Each half of the performance began without with a long silence, with only the shuffle and rumble of the office environment punctuated by the click and mutter of the office secretaries filled the theatre until, finally, the orchestra slid into life. A ruse that worked well, although Katerina’s opening soliloquy segued somewhat uncomfortably with the noises-off. And indeed one of the difficulties of this stage production became quickly and irksomely clear: the potential for conflict and for distraction: from typists toiling mindlessly into a paper wilderness or robotic labourers equally mindlessly loading boxes destined for nowhere. Katerina’s agonising, born out of her cold, loveless and isolated situation had a tendency to contradict, rather than counterpoint this activity. My view is that the proximity of extraneous human beings here and, ironically, the absence of massed human beings in the final act of the opera—constituted a miscalculation and is surely at odds with Shostakovich’s libretto and supervised stagings from the 1930s.

Another production-related issue concerns the representation of sex in this performance: a key element that runs through Leskov’s narrative of course. One of the first act’s most brutal and shocking moments, the rape of Aksinya (here, a buxom frontline secretary), brilliantly depicted in recent performances from Dutch National Opera (Martin Kušej) and the Metropolitan Opera version (Graham Vick), is rendered ragged in Tcherniakov’s hands: the molestation and pseudo-rape takes place amongst the office furniture and on a conveniently positioned forklift truck, in a sea of confusion. The result: an almost comic interlude to what should be an inhuman, wanton act of violence.

The relationship between the shaven-headed Sergei, impressively interpreted by Briton John Daszak and his fellow workers was, throughout, oddly muted—respectful almost. This “hero figure,” simultaneously elevated and despised by his co-workers, was unconvincing, insufficiently bawdy and mindless: again the overall direction appeared to have impacted on the physical interplay between Sergei and the mob.

Katerina, sung by American soprano Patricia Racette, revealed a much less frantic vocal demeanour than, say, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Josephine Barstow or indeed Galina Vishnevskaya in her striving for liberty and passion. Hers was an implicit, rather than explicit manner through which the raw, sexually-charged sequences were depicted. This might well be justified given the acute and impressive sense of suffocation and oppression that Racette achieved—a vocalisation that struggled with the restrained tenderness it strove to depict (finally losing much of its restraint in the final act.) Visually, Racette’s use of steady, flowing, body movements was immensely effective, emotionally suggestive, and soundlessly menacing.

Of all the other supporting cast members, the depiction of the leering father-in-law Boris benefited from easily the best characterisation and vocalisation: Robert Hayward’s powerful baritone was wholly believable with its thinly veiled innuendo and violent detonations. In contrast, Peter Hoare’s muted Zinovy was overly pathetic and weak, both dramatically and vocally-speaking, not aided by the travelling salesman garb in which he drifted on and off stage.

If the murder of Boris was well choreographed, with excellent touches in the shape of the attendant priest, the impact of Zinovy’s murder was frustratingly lessened largely due the restricted space offered by the central (carpet-laden) set. Eye lines were awkward and the abject violence meted on the luckless Zinovy was consequently restricted and weakened. One other unfortunate consequence of the choice of staging was that of the “cellar” into which the body of Zinovy was unceremoniously dragged. The carpeted trap door through which the police were soon to traipse provoked giggles in the audience, clearly in dissention with the brutality and cynicism of the murder act.

Moving to the wedding party: a banquet filled the erstwhile office space, and the scene began with an excellent sense of unease—a bleachclean wedding whiteness tinged with the aroma of the impending cataclysm. The entry of the gaggling police officers and of the police chief, excellently portrayed by the Danish bass Per Bach Nissen, dropped a perfect soupcon of cynical satire onto this infamous scene, whose unmistakable allusions to State corruption so irked the opera’s 1930s detractors.

The Siberian wasteland into which Katerina and Sergei were now condemned was condensed by Tcherniakov in this production into a bare, unkempt prison cell (physically taking the place of the carpet lined “cell”), whilst the factory environs were plunged into a permanent darkness. Dramaturgically this is nonsense, even if a director might cite artistic licence. This is not a criticism per se of the individual performances nor indeed on the quality of the stage setting itself. The issue here is that Shostakovich’s libretto clearly strives to evoke the incalculable hopelessness that faces the condemned; prisoners considered as obtrusive, irritating livestock, to be fed, to be allowed to fight and to fornicate, to survive in the face of certain oblivion. Here, a three metre square box reduced Siberia to Wormwood Scrubs. And then we encounter Katerina’s new cell-mate, Sonietka: a slight, blonde, sex-kitten of a girl with a fixation for hair and make-up. The ensuing episode involving Katerina’s stockings and Sergei’s “masculinity” again made for a grim and awkward farce.

And, finally, replacing the opera’s final, highly dramatic gesture, wherein Katerina jettisons herself and Sonietka into a deep black abyss—Katerina now brandishes a chair, provoking a shower of sparks to rain down from a ceiling light—a pyrotechnic flop—lights out!

Mark Wigglesworth led the orchestra through a performance that balanced subtlety, power and an attention to detail quiet superbly. Only the offstage brass group disappointed, with some wayward ensemble and a rather problematic balance (they were housed in an audience box).

In conclusion—many excellent aspects to be taken from this production, especially the general vocal quality, acting and undoubtedly the orchestral playing: I, and others it seems, remain to be convinced by the stage production and direction.

Alan Mercer

Quatuor Danel, from left: Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Marc Danel (violin), Gilles Millet (violin),
Yovan Markovitch (cello)

40th Anniversary Concert
Quartets nos. 1, 6, and 15

The Quatuor Danel was founded in 1991 and has gained its reputation for outstanding, deeply intense interpretations (both in concert and on CD) notably through performances of the Beethoven, Shostakovich and Weinberg works. Although Marc Danel denies that the ensemble sought to avoid being tagged as specialising in any composer’s works, the two composers from the fast-receding Soviet era have always held a special place in the Quatuor Danel’s repertoire. They regularly perform Shostakovich’s string quartets and famously recorded the complete cycle for Fuga Libera in 2005 (reviewed in DSCH24). More recently they recorded the complete quartets by Weinberg, a project supported amongst others by Shostakovich’s widow Irina: the quartet began collecting the scores of Weinberg’s 17 quartets in 1995, recording them from 2007 to 2012, for the CPO label.

A recent change to the original ensemble saw the arrival of Yovan Markovitch, former cellist of the renowned Ysaÿe Quartet, from 2005 to late 2013 (the ensemble disbanded early 2014). He replaced Guy Danel who had left to pursue an independent career.

In what has become an annual event, organised by the Paris-based Association Internationale Dimitri Chostakovitch, the Danel Quartet performed an all-Shostakovich programme at a packed Salle Cortot, on 8 October 2015, featuring the Quartets nos. 1, 6 and 15. The composer’s widow Irina Antonovna Shostakovich was present: again a tradition.

Since Guy Danel’s departure the quartet has been to some extent seeking its new performing and interpretative “equilibrium.” The uniqueness of the Danels’ interpretations had always been, for many critics, the ensemble’s intense mutual empathy with a work’s very core values, its fabric, added to which the group has always deployed a highly emotive performing style. It was, then, perhaps a remaining fleck of unease, added to the auspicious nature of the event, that impacted on the expected fluidity of performance, certainly of the First Quartet, which began and ended with a certain frailty of tone—a rare occurrence for the Danels. The idiosyncratic Sixth fared better, a certain warmth and empathy emerging as the 25-minute work, not often performed outside the context of a complete cycle, cadenced its way to a touching finale.

An entr’acte ensued, followed by the monumental Fifteenth Quartet, whose six linked movements, all Adagio, emerge from the intensity and introspection of a composer close to the end of his earthly tenure. Nothing in the Danels’ interpretation of this work strayed from the haunting, pulsing, rhythmically-obsessed pattern of many previous renditions: the audience’s reaction was one of a stunned collective silence: a display almost of discomfort akin to an encroachment, an unintended witnessing of a tragedy.

Then followed the unexpected: an encore. Should the finale of this so-‘final’ work be subject to a sequel? Well, here it was, and astonishingly it was the first movement of the First Quartet that was (re)played. But such a vastly different “First” to that that the Danels had performed ninety minutes earlier. Fired perhaps by the intensity of the Fifteenth, this encore was the converse of the one-time “Springtime” label with which the work had be adorned following its early performances in the late 1930s. An astonishing finale to a recital of mixed fortunes, but that left the audience buzzing, reeling from its closing moments.

Alan Mercer

©BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Orango – Prologue
Homo Sovieticus lives on[1]
Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London

24 August 2015 (Proms premiere)
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

In the summer of 1932 Shostakovich was, at 25, a prominent figure in Soviet musical life enjoying some measure of official approval. His second symphony “To October” had been commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the revolution in 1927, and he had to his credit his first opera The Nose; two full length ballets; three film scores; incidental music for five theatre pieces and was halfway through Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He still participated in the proletarian youth theatre group TRAM, which he had worked with since 1929.[2]

1932 was the fifteenth anniversary year of the 1917 revolution, calling for more celebrations. Many grandiose ideas were circulated, including a design by Boris Iofan for a vast palace of the Soviets, topped by a statue of Lenin.[3]

Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre asked Alexey Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov for a three-act opera with prologue. They responded with Orango, on the theme of an ape-man hybrid in modern society, based on the work of recently discredited biologist Ilya Ivanov, who appears in the piece as The Zoologist. From 1927, in French Guinea, he had conducted inconclusive attempts at inseminating female chimpanzees with human sperm, and later ran a research colony at Sukhumi on the Black Sea. At this stage he enjoyed strong support from Stalin, who was taken with the possibility of a new race of ape-human hybrids, super-strong warriors who would toil uncomplainingly, not fear of death and be free of compassion. However Ivanov’s attempts failed and he was arrested and exiled in 1930. He died in 1932.

Ivanov was no charlatan and had enjoyed other scientific successes, for instance, the invention of artificial insemination.

Tolstoy and Starchakov produced a libretto for the Prologue to Orango, on a widely drawn theme; “human growth during the revolution and building socialism.”

Shostakovich, a friend of Tolstoy, was enthusiastically involved from an early stage, breaking off from Lady Macbeth to produce a piano score of the Prologue in June-July 1932. Before Ivanov’s fall, he had visited the Sukhumi colony, a popular tourist destination for Soviet intellectuals.

The project was abandoned in 1932, the libretto never completed, and the piano score lost. It was rediscovered by musicologist Olga Digonskaya at the Glinka Museum, Moscow, in 2004. Gerard McBurney orchestrated it in 2007 at the request of Irina Shostakovich and it was premiered in 2011 in LA by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen, directed by Peter Sellars. This Prom performance was the London premiere.


The Prologue, as we have it, is a dramatically viable play within a play, encapsulating the projected three-act plot. Tolstoy’s intention was to produce a “parody of a parody”; the play stages an anniversary celebration; the chorus is the stage audience. As we will see, this complex satirical structure worked all too well.

The Prologue dramatises a revolutionary celebration of the regime. The opening bass aria and Chorus of Soviet Citizens excoriates labour under capitalism as ‘a curse’ but praises revolutionary work “freed labour is the name of [the] fatherland.” A Master of Ceremonies shows wonders of the regime to a group of cynical foreign tourists, including French embryologist Arman Fleury. French scientists and journalists are a particular object of satire, reflecting a Soviet propaganda campaign at the time. Ironically, many of the Western tourists to the USSR at this time were all too determined to see the future working.

The Master of Ceremonies introduces Nastya, a peasant dancer who apes classical ballet with clumsy high kicks. The tourists, unimpressed, demand better marvels, so the Master of Ceremonies introduces Orango, the man-ape hybrid “who eats with knife and fork, blows his nose, plays a nursery tune ‘chizhik-pyzhik’ with one finger on the piano, and says ‘he-he-he.’” During the demonstration, however, the atmosphere turns darker when Orango attacks a female tourist. Orango is calmed by a slow dance from Nastya. There follows a recognition scene as Fleury recognises Orango as his son, the product of experiments he carried out to produce ape-human hybrids. It turns out that previously Orango had a career as a journalist in Paris, but has since deteriorated to the condition of a beast, retaining a few limited human characteristics, and has been sold to the Moscow circus. The final brilliant, cod-triumphant Chorus—in C major—has the whole cast and whitemasked chorus, mocking Orango; “let’s laugh…. at the fruitless attempt to steer life with an ape’s hands.” The full projected piece was to have told Orango’s story in flashback.


Tonally, the music runs from Stravinsky-like chromaticism and jazz rhythms to the faux-triumphant, mocking C major of the final chorus, with many satirical interjections along the way. McBurney’s bright orchestration creates a witty, fast-moving piece. Characters are comic sketches rather than deeply drawn, but this does not detract. As with much of Shostakovich’ theatre music, the music features frequent self-borrowing. McBurney compares Shostakovich’s composition practice with Handel’s; Shostakovich used his theatre work effectively as composition workshops. These pieces were relatively ephemeral and often required at short notice. This practice continued to a degree into his symphonic work also;[4] it is not surprising that the final chorus of Orango, in particular, pre-echoes the Tenth Symphony’s final Allegro.

Boris Iofan’s grandiose design formed the backdrop and all on stage were dressed in red with propagandistic slogans. Arena and Chorus waved red flags; the Chorus’ playbooks were mocked up as copies of Pravda.

The piece was sung in Russian, without surtitles, by a young Russian cast. They found no difficulty in the nuances of Soviet irony from the 1930s, being perfectly familiar with the sort of journalism that recycles whatever narrative is required by the state. Indeed the Prologue itself is not dated at all, for the same reason. The Bass, opening the piece, played
the part of the political officer ubiquitous in Soviet life, with peaked cap, binoculars and pistol. The Master of Ceremonies, with megaphone, was dressed in a blue silk peasant style blouse and peaked cap. Orango was in assorted fragments of evening dress, unjacketed, revealing furry arms. Others were in stylish 1930s dress.

The final chorus has everyone on stage singing “Let’s laugh, let’s laugh…” at the unhappy Orango, a bright, mocking C major chorus taken at a furious pace.

To survive in the repertoire, OrangoPrologue will need a one-act pairing, along the lines of Cav and Pag, as it runs for thirty minutes only. Stravinsky’s Petrushka comes to mind. In its favour, Petrushka also portrays the ambiguities of human identity, through the character of the puppet with a soul, and adopts a satirical, mocking voice. Probably other short theatre pieces survive from the early Soviet era.

Reasons for abandonment

The disgraced and recently deceased Ivanov might at first have seemed an ideal object for satire, but there were greater ideological perils in 1932.

One was a current controversy, from 1929–32, between a few Soviet Lamarckians (adhering to the idea of evolution proceeding by way of acquired characteristics) and Marxist-Leninists who rested on writings of Engels, themselves largely based on Lamarck, so sharing a good deal of common ground.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin had not speculated about the actual mechanism of natural selection. By the 1920s, acquired characteristics were widely thought to be incorrect but still had adherents. Lamarck, was, of course, a respected scientific thinker from the eighteenth/nineteenth century. However the Marxist-Leninist version of the doctrine was pure politically motivated pseudoscience. To them, natural selection was ideologically suspect; the notion of competition violated Marxist-Leninist principles of cooperation. Hence the controversy in Soviet scientific circles; its motivation was to exclude geneticists whose evidence was based on foreign materials, who the Marxist-Leninists derided as “menshevising idealists.” Ivanov would have qualified as a “menshevising idealist,” as his work was empirical and open to influences from abroad.[5]

All this predated the rise of Trofim Lysenko, an amateur agronomist and charlatan who dominated Soviet agronomy for decades and enjoyed great official approval. Lysenko’s ideas were a good fit with the Marxist-Leninist side of the genetics controversy. His great idea was to increase agricultural output through adaptation of an ancient farming technique, “vernalisation,” to seed grains and animals. Science and technology generally were at this time extremely important to the Soviet regime.[6]

Needless to say, Lysenko’s techniques failed to deliver, and eventually in 1965 he was discredited; a commission disclosed massive scientific fraud perpetrated by Lysenko to cover up his failures. The fact that Lysenko’s thinking persisted for so long shows the danger of applying political constraints to science.

Another strand was the pervasive idea that the USSR was creating a new kind of humanity, or “homo sovieticus.” In the debate between nature and nurture, the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy was that heredity counted for nothing, but that human nature could be completely moulded through Soviet education and propaganda.

As McBurney says on the final Chorus, the audience are the real monsters, whilst Orango, the hybrid, is the only character with enough self-awareness to suffer. The butt of the joke is, of course, “the fruitless attempt to steer life with an ape’s hands,” which in effect ridicules the Marxist-Leninist project of reshaping humanity. Tolstoy and his colleagues could not have failed to see where this would lead them; their “parody of parody” sends up the entire Soviet system. It is scarcely surprising that the project was swiftly dropped.

Orango stands now as a brilliant satire on the Soviet system, which deserves a permanent place in the repertoire, as it remains relevant to Putin’s Russia and indeed totalitarianism everywhere. It is evident that Homo Sovieticus is still at home in the Putin regime. Recent research comparing moral attitudes in different post-communist populations has identified worse moral attitudes in Russian populations, after 70 years of communism, compared to Eastern European populations who lived under communism for a generation only. Psychological researchers compared groups of subjects from different populations, and control groups. The different groups were set tests designed to assess how many would cheat at prescribed psychological tests, under controlled conditions. The conclusion pointed to a statistically significant difference in readiness to cheat between groups from the ex-GDR and ex-Soviet Union; groups from the ex-USSR had a greater readiness to cheat. Lasting differences in attitudes appear to remain in these populations, even a generation after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. This would seem to have significant implications for the future of democracy in Russia, as evinced by the constant
presence of Putin as leader through rigged elections.[7]

Orango also illuminates our strange relationship with our closest relatives. Although we are primates too, we go out of our way to emphasise their bestial qualities, and equally have difficulty recognising their intelligence. An urban myth says that apes can speak but choose to play dumb, understanding that if they spoke, then wewould enslave them.

1. This article draws largely on Olga Digonskaya, “DD Shostakovich’s Unfinished Opera Orango,” the introductory essay to the piano score, “Orango; Unfinished Satirical Opera” (DSCH Publishers, 2010). Additional information can be found in the liner notes to Deutsche Grammophon 479 0249, reviewed in DSCH Journal 37.
2. Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990).
3. Boris Iofan drawing “Palace of the Soviets” in BBC Proms programme for 24 August 2015.
4. Talk by Marina Frolova-Walker and Gerard McBurney, interviewed by Tom Service at the Royal College of Music
and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as the interval talk on 24 August 2015.
5. Zhores A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, trans. I. Michael Lerner (New York: Anchor Books, 1971).
6. For Ilya Ivanov and Trofim Lysenko, see John Grant, Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (Wisley, Surrey: Facts, Figures & Fun, 2007).
7. For politics and persistence of Soviet attitudes under Putin, see “The long life of Homo Sovieticus,” The Economist, December 10, 2011.

Hilary Nicholls

Barbican’s Shostakovich Day
Gerard McBurney, Alexander Melnikov, Cuarteto Casals

You needed a sharp eye to find out about the Barbican Centre’s Shostakovich Day—even the DSCH Journal team didn’t know about it until shortly beforehand—but for the enthusiasts in attendance, there was no other place to be in London on 13 December 2015. Over the course of three fulllength concerts, pianist Alexander Melnikov and Cuarteto Casals played all 24 Preludes and Fugues, five of the string quartets, and the Piano Quintet. Shostakovich scholar Gerard McBurney (best known for reconstructing Hypothetically Murdered and Orango) interspersed the music with readings from the composer’s letters, reminiscences by his friends, and contemporary film clips.

Melnikov is “known for his often-unusual musical and programmatic decisions.” He asked that the audience not applaud at the end of each Prelude and Fugue; a fellow audience member suggested this may have been because he added so many pauses that he feared people would think a piece was over when it wasn’t. Melnikov’s eccentric performances, however, never bordered on charlatanism. On the contrary, he drew upon a very personal relationship with each piece. The resulting performance offered great depth and tenderness, while sacrificing lightness in some of the pieces. It also sounded surprisingly un-Bach-like—not necessarily a problem in itself, but somewhat incongruous when preceded by readings that emphasised Bach’s influence.

Although Cuarteto Casals gave keen and graceful performances of quartets nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7, by the time they closed the last concert with no. 8, their energy flagged; there were pulled punches in the second movement, and even some missing notes in the last. Perhaps their finest moment came in the afternoon concert, when Melnikov joined them for the Piano Quintet. Indeed, I preferred this performance to the rather opaque account that Elisabeth Leonskaya and the Emerson String Quartet gave at the BBC Proms in August.

McBurney said in his programme notes that he wanted to celebrate Shostakovich as “a passionate and lifelong lover of words,” and his readings from the composer’s letters were well-chosen for that purpose. But McBurney’s most interesting contribution came before Quartet no. 6, when he pointed out that the first movement quotes from “Beautiful Day”—a song from Shostakovich’s score to The Fall of Berlin—and suggested that this might be evidence of Margarita Kainova’s much-disputed influence on the piece. This was an intriguing addition to an event that featured a number of female perspectives on Shostakovich, from Anna Akhmatova’s poem Music (dedicated to the composer) to Irina Shostakovich’s memories of their domestic life.

The concert hall, which was halfempty for the morning concert, was nearly full by evening. With any luck, days like this will become regular (and better-advertised) events.

Laura Del Col Brown

Carducci Quartet
Complete String Quartets

I this age of anniversarialism, the fortieth of Shostakovich’s death didn’t attract as much attention as the 2006 centenary of his birth. There were some notable projects, but none were as ambitious as those of the Carducci Quartet. While some ensembles upped their Shostakovich quotient for the year, the Carduccis set out to achieve something extraordinary. Numerous quartets have performed complete cycles over three or four days, but the Carduccis would compress that time frame to a weekend several times and, on the fortieth anniversary itself, performed all fifteen quartets in a single day at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in London’s Globe Theatre on 9 August 2015.

This might initially seem to tap into the fashion for “extreme” art events or, at worst, to have an aura of gimmickry, but what emerged was a remarkably individual view of the cycle, and a reaffirmation of the works’ greatness and coherence—it became almost like a single six-and-a-half hour quartet.

The cycle breaks down conveniently into four concerts, each with an interval: quartets one to four; five to eight; nine to twelve, and the last three. With intervals, including a dinner break, the event lasted all day, starting at 11:00 and running through into the evening. A detailed appraisal of the entire event would be beyond any reviewer, so here I offer my impressions of the fifteen quartets and of the event as a whole.

Shostakovich’s quartet journey begins with an overtly classical work, and the Carduccis took this cue as clearly as they could: Matthew Denton’s first violin was positively Haydnesque, so that the pizzicato sections felt like a door opening on a new world. Yet, despite this atypical opening to the cycle, there were other features that would prove constant—the warmth of Eoin Schmidt-Martin’s viola, the subtle support of Michelle Fleming’s second violin, and, underpinning the entire day, the forceful solidity of Emma Denton’s cello. Perhaps the prospect of a daunting day ahead caused a minute or so’s unsteadiness, but that was soon forgotten. The finale’s coda incited a few chuckles in the auditorium setting off another recurring theme—the rapt and close involvement of the audience, a fortunate few hundred packed into the candlelit theatre.

The Second Quartet revealed another strand that would recur throughout the day: its defiance pre-echoed the best-known of the cycle—the Eighth: there were several moments where audience members who knew the cycle might have thought about other works—in the quartet’s third movement, the shadowy waltz macabre shot us momentarily into the Fourth Symphony.

Probably most of the audience were familiar with the quartets to some degree, but sadly Matthew Denton’s brief introductions were quite general and gave few insights into the group’s views on the works or their process.

The Third—starting the public/private division—did not begin as blithely as sometimes, the dissonances were ramped up, and Emma Denton attacked the cello with particular vigour. By now the quartet was well into its stride, finding a striking freedom—the Fourth Quartet was given a more intense performance than the group’s recording (SIGCD418). Similarly, they emphasised the contrasts in the Fifth’s journey from galumphing semi-comedy to empty desolation.

One measure of a quartet’s insights into Shostakovich’s cycle is the Sixth: is its Cinderella status the cause or the result of many ensembles shunning it and its elusiveness? But it is one of the Carduccis’ favourites, and through their steady consideration of it, they managed to make a convincing case, without pretending to answer all its unanswerable questions. As the work progressed, we began to wonder whether its light opening was a bluff, but the Carduccis left us constantly swinging to and fro in our view of the piece—which perhaps reduced its attractiveness to those who had made up their minds but left this reviewer happily reconsidering it.

With Seven and Eight we were on more familiar territory, though the former brought one of the day’s few disappointments for me as the ghostliness seemed underplayed, despite it having been introduced as a memorial work. As for the ever-(over?)-popular Eighth, the Carduccis were happy to accept the onomatopoeias and pictorialisms as part of the work—though of course it is also far more than that. Whether for the former or the latter reason, it was a quick, hard-driven performance with an urgency that brought the second tranche of quartets to a thrilling close.

Even with a long break following the Eighth, the second half of the day could hardly have started with a greater contrast: the Ninth’s muzziness, muted and veiled, gave an ambiguity that brought to mind the Sixth, albeit achieved by different means. But as it progressed, the mists rose, and it gained a purposeful determination. Shostakovich began the Tenth straight after finishing the Ninth, so this performance seemed like a continuation, but it was also a journey into an unimaginable maelstrom: the infamous slashing allegretto was as furioso as I’ve ever heard it, yet the group managed incredible feats of synchronisation. By now the audience was passionately involved, and unsurprisingly the end of the movement was followed by a number of loud gasps and even nervous laughter.

Paradoxically, as the Carduccis became more comfortable, they seemed increasingly happy to push their interpretations, especially in those works featuring profound contrasts. So, in the Eleventh, a multi-faceted suite, the extreme mood swings were heightened, particularly bringing out the bizarre, perhaps pitch-black humour.

But, as should be clear by now, the day was not simply a series of impressive tonal variations presenting moment-to-moment variety, and this was best exemplified in the Twelfth. The cello’s opening twelve-note melody can be phrased in any number of ways: Emma Denton gave it in a single breath, giving almost no particular weight to the final dominant-tonic cadence so that the whole work became an extended, agonising wait for resolution. On the way, the Carduccis’ negotiation of the approach to the coda showed the work beginning Shostakovich’s Beethovenian contemplation of the boundaries of performability.

After that, the Thirteenth, starting the final concert, risked being a disappointment and, sad to say, there was an element of that. The notorious taps were underplayed, made part of the texture rather than rude irruptions; in the middle there was jazziness, but it didn’t dance, though the final chill descended effectively.

With the Fourteenth we were back on track with a performance that, seeming to take its cue from the Lady Macbeth quotation, was songful, with an almost vocal quality. That left only the last quartet, performed on its own. It certainly wasn’t the slowest opening ever performed, and it may have been tiredness that caused a few moments of uncertain intonation, but it was a performance that often brought consolation rather than numbness. Following the Fifteenth Quartet, there was a response quite unlike any that I’ve ever experienced—after an achingly ong silence, the theatre cathartically erupted: there was a sense of achievement, for sure, and of a journey completed together, but beyond that there was the recognition that this had been an opportunity to discover this masterful cycle in a unique way.

Few quartets would have the stamina or determination to see through such a project: the preparation took months, comparable to a marathon, and though the Carduccis have done a number of weekend cycles, one wonders how often, if ever, they might repeat this astonishing feat. In the end, it was far more than a quirky one-off: it brought real insights and made this audience member keen to hear how their interpretations will develop in future years.

John Leman Riley