Brodsky Quartet – intervju med Jacqueline Thomas

(Obs! De två sista frågorna är besvarade av primarien Daniel Rowland)

Three days, five concerts and Shostakovich 15 quartets. It is a grand and unique musical project. If you compare this with other concerts where you play one program and then leave, what is the most significant difference?
This wonderful cycle of string quartets is a unique journey for performers and listeners alike. We play them in loosely chronological order and so there is an emotional journey to be witnessed and felt through the music. For us it is a fantastic experience and a real chance to get to know and communicate with the audience, unlike when we play one programme and leave. There is often a chance to speak with each other between concerts, which is nice, but also I find when you hear one performer a few times over some days, you really get a chance to put the music first, rather than processing the character or identity of the musicians. So the composer is the winner in these situations, which is as it should be!

All quartets concentrated to a few days and concerts at the same venue. What special dimensions of the music bring this to us listeners?
As with getting used to hearing one set of performers in concentration, the chance to hear just one composer’s entire output for one medium is a fantastic way to appreciate it. We are comparing him only to himself, hearing his inner feelings coming and going, his experimenting with different compositional techniques, inspired by his contemporaries and predecessors, (e.g. the 12 tone system makes an appearance with No.12), but always his personality is prevalent. If works are juxtaposed with other composers it is also a great way to hear music – to hear the contrasting ideas and personalities, but this way is a rare treat we don’t often have the chance to experience in live performance.

Shostakovich composed the first quartet 1938 and the last 1974. Is the quartets representative for his personal development as composer?
In simple terms it’s easy to say that the earlier work, written after the birth of his son, is a sunnier and more innocent piece, and that the last is full of the cares and sadness of age and illness, but there is so much more to it than that. Both works contain elements of youth and age, innocence and experience. Remember, he had already completed 5 symphonies and many significant works before embarking on the First quartet, so he was no beginner. Having said that, the First quartet does have quite a different voice to the others, as though he is tentative in this new venture. The Second is more assured and a real tour-de-force, though again unlike all the others with more of a classical basis in its construction: it is with the Third that he really finds the voice we all know as the language of the quartets.
It may be interesting to point out that he probably intended to write 24 quartets, all in a different key. The fifteen he completed follow a fascinating key structure, starting with C major and falling a third to A minor for the Second, another third down to F major for the Third, and so on as far as No.8. This pivotal work – and the best-known of all – marks the central turning point in the cycle, after which the journey through keys is reversed, ending in E flat minor for the 15th. This incredible piece of music is in six movements, all slow and introspective. By this time he was a very sick man and it became the final work of the cycle – though the perfect symmetry of the whole set and its key relations makes it hard to imagine he really intended it any other way.
There is one thread which runs through all his works – the rhythm of ta-ta-tum, ta-ta-tum – as in William Tell Overture of Rossini. It is used in so many different ways throughout the quartets, with such imagination and meaning, from quick to very slow repetitions. Of course he also uses his own musical signature DSCH in note form (e.g. the opening notes of No.8 as a fugue and in every subsequent movement.) Folk melodies make an appearance, sometimes in very different format to their original version, making an irony of them, but often celebrating the lost identities of ethnic groups under persecution (e.g. Jewish melodies in No.4). And he also quotes from his own works – most famously from the opera Lady Macbeth in the 8th and 14th quartets, where the cello soars in a beautiful love theme.

Shostakovich lived and worked in a society were music – and certainly his music – sometimes was under ideological and political pressure. In what way has this influenced his quartets? Is it comparable with his symphonies?
The quartets are widely considered to be his personal diaries. Shostakovich was writing under the oppressive watch of Stalin and his ideology that music should represent the people and not the individual, that the glory of the State should be celebrated through the works of great composers. Therefore the symphonies, being very much on public show, became the vehicle for conforming to the ideal, (though Shostakovich did so with an irony and panache which didn’t always satisfy the close scrutiny of the powers-that-be and often landed him in danger of denouncement). The quartets, being generally premiered on less important occasions and with a more select audience, gave him licence to be free with his emotions and delve into the true musical representation of his painful and some might say tortuous existence. He was a very nervous man, always looking over his shoulder. The threat of being carried off in the middle of the night to a Siberian prison or worse was always with him and his fellow artists; the deafening banging on the door is represented to chilling effect in the 8th quartet.
Shostakovich revelled in and sought solace in his friendships with like-minded artists and performers around him, especially the members of the Beethoven Quartet who premiered many of these works. He dedicated the 11th to 14th each to a different member of the quartet, allowing that person a chance to shine, though in the case of the second violinist the sad irony is that the work was written in his memory after his sudden death, so it is to his ghost that the composer pays tribute.

You have played all Shostakovich quartets before and also made an acclaimed recording on Teldec. Has your perception on the quartets changed over the years?
I began playing the quartets when I was just 11 years old (No. 11 was our first and we famously performed part of No. 3 to 2000 school children at London’s Royal Albert Hall when we were just 16/17). In those days it wasn’t easy to find the parts of the newest works so we would sometimes listen to the first broadcast performances and jot down the parts ourselves, just so we could have a go at playing them! Of course my perception of music in general has changed enormously since that time, but Shostakovich has a simplicity to his writing which makes him well suited to young players. This was even responsible for his reputation being rather inferior to his contemporaries at first – I remember in the 70s having to defend him in arguments with fellow students who thought him simplistic. This was before he became widely known and appreciated as having real genius and depth, especially in understatement. I am constantly amazed at the exactness of his writing – there is no waffle or unnecessary filling – everything is vital to the whole. He also has an exacting use of directions – dynamics, tempi, rhythms – which if adhered to exactly give us all we need to reproduce the music. There is a beauty in Shostakovich which becomes more fragile in his later works – the use of two-part writing and long sections of solo lines seems to depict a kind of breaking down to essentials, as though the pure thought is enough without harmony or texture to back it up. Some would say there is a bleakness to it but I would argue that this writing contains vast richness and beauty. By the end, so much can be said, yet unsaid.

What was your experience of performing in Uppsala Concert Hall before and how does it feel to be back?
Daniel Rowland: It’s a lovely hall, with great acoustics and an extremely pleasant, intimate atmosphere to perform in – what a great space this Cultural Centre is!! One can feel that the audience is knowledgable and appreciative – it’s in fact the kind of place that one really looks forward to coming back to! Last time I saw Uppsala was in deep snow- look forward to seeing it in springtime!

You are celebrating 40 years as a quartet! Two of the members have been changed over the years. I would like to ask Daniel Rowland: what was special to join this quartet with such a long history? How did you approach each other?
Daniel Rowland: It’s quite amazing that my 3 colleagues have been performing together for round 30 years, in the case of Ian and Jacky even 40 years, from childhood! To join as first violin three musicians who play and breath and understand music as closely as these three is very special indeed- it can give the new member a big degree of freedom to play with three who often think and feel as one – and it’s a joy to inject my own ideas and style into this closely knit ”organism”.