The Scottish Ensemble
Clio Gould - Director/Violin
Violin: Cheryl Crockett, Jonathan Morton, Liza Webb, Andrew Storey, Lowri Porter, Laura Ghiro
Viola: Gillianne Haddow, Rebecca Theaker
Cello: Alison Lawrance, Rebecca Gilliver
Double Bass: Diane Clark
Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) only string quartet has nothing to do with the world of Beethoven's string quartets. There is no titanic struggle in the first movement, no dialectic discussion of two principles which finally leads to a synthesis. Instead, a calm and quiet development seems to take the listener straight back to its point of departure. But then, a whole century had passed since Beethoven. And when Ravel, aged 28, presented his string quartet in Paris in 1905, impressionism finally seemed to have conquered the terrain of chamber music. Completed only two years earlier, the new and exciting piece divided the audience into two disputing parties. The premiere, unsurprisingly, caused a scandal.
The music remains subtle and delicate, there is no great show, no escalation. Consequently, the piece is not primarily about a story that can be narrated. This is pure music aiming at nothing but colours and sounds. The same is true for the slow third movement which begins like a funeral march and even calls up baroque phrases. At times, the ramifications are expertly polyphonic. The music always remains full of emotion and seems to console (itself) more and more. In the swift finale, Ravel once more combines all previous elements and lets the music come to a powerful end.
For Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) the year 1964 was part of a difficult era. The period of political relaxation under Khrushchev had nourished the hope that the popular fears instilled on Stalin’s regime had finally been overcome. The situation, however, had not fundamentally changed.
Under the pretext of democratization, Shostakovich was made chairman of the composers’ association of the Soviet Republic of Russia. At the same time he was forced to join the communist party – an experience dealt with by Shostakovich in his 8th string quartet.
Written in 1964, the “twin quartets” No 9 and 10 are not exactly optimistic. The String Quartet No. 10, Op. 110 is based on the classical form consisting of four movements. However, the entire development culminates in the overwhelming finale which follows immediately after the great passacaglia of the slow movement. The introductory andante is of a peculiarly indifferent nature, which may well result from its puppet-like motion. The “coarse” second movement – an aggressive “Allegretto furioso” of the type of Shostakovich’s “sarcastic scherzo” – undoubtedly forms the strongest possible contrast. The fact that the slow movement makes use of the baroque form of the passacaglia is nothing unusual here: Shostakovich frequently used this static form with its underlying repetitions of the bass theme over which the music can unfold freely – a device to characterize the “leaden times” of the monotonous Soviet years during which society was oppressed by the authorities. The bass theme returns at the climax of the finale – just in time to soothe the ever-increasing brutality and repulsiveness of the music. But now the cello and viola pick up the passacaglia theme with a warning undertone. A march reminiscent of the first movement trots along before the music disappears into nothingness. The fact that the 10th string quartet, regardless of its lack of hope, shows Shostakovich in the prime of his creative life underlines the enormous appeal he must have had at the time – especially for the younger generation of composers who could well have regarded him merely as a representative of the “old regime”. Surely, the honesty with which Shostakovich described his situation and illustrated his critical detachment regarding the Soviet regime was equally important to his younger colleagues. His was an honesty that cannot possibly escape anybody whose ears and heart are as open as were the composer’s.
Bernd Feuchtner (translated by Marc Staudacher)
Recorded at the City Halls, Glasgow 16 - 18 December 2002
Produced by Tim Oldman
Engineered by Philip Hobbs, assisted by Andrew Halifax