Complex 20th century “classical music,” or more properly serious art music as opposed to various forms of popular music, seems to be a gamble. It’s never just as interesting to an audience as Beethoven, Brahms and the rest. It’s either less interesting than what they really came for, or sometimes if you get lucky, much more interesting.
With that in mind, it’s a wonder that a veteran chamber music group known throughout Europe doesn’t perform here more often. The “Quatuor Danel,” or Danel String Quartet named after founder and lead violinist Marc Danel, never performed in the U.S. until 2015. If American concert presenters want to keep turning on audiences to material that in other people’s hands turns them off, they need to bring these guys across the ocean again and again.
The audience at the Phillips Collection’s weekly concert series is ordinarily one of the most alert and involved in the city. But I’m not sure I’ve felt even a Phillips audience on the edge of their seats quite like they were on Sunday afternoon for Quatuor Danel’s performance of string quartets by two Soviet-era composers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
The place of these two Russians in the musical pantheon is quite different. Shostakovich, who died in 1975, is considered a lion of 20th century music, while Weinberg, who died in 1996, is only now being rediscovered and championed by various groups worldwide (including Washington’s own PostClassical Ensemble). Weinberg was actually not, properly speaking, Russian like Shostakovich. He was a Polish Jew who made it to Russia right at the outbreak of World War II via his musical connections, leaving behind his parents who ultimately died in the Nazi concentration camps. But the ensuing friendship between the two composers and the cross-influences in their music is now becoming better known.
That includes passages from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 from 1946. It’s one of his masterworks, but the challenge in performing the five-movement work is to un-jumble the atmosphere of its apparent multiple styles so that its full half-hour arc makes emotional sense.
To that end, there’s a “cheat” in understanding this quartet, and the Quatuor Danel was not too proud to include it in their program notes, and I’m not too proud to share it with you, even though some music history scholars look down on it.
Shostakovich was periodically challenged by Soviet authorities to provide even his purely instrumental music with an acceptable “story” that fed the proper domestic or international narratives. Given that the third string quartet was completed not long after World War II, either Shostakovich or someone close to him at one point provided the following “program” for the five movements: 1) “Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm,” 2) “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation,” 3) “Forces of war unleashed,” 4) “In memory of the dead,” 5) “The eternal question: Why? And for what?”
At a literal level, this is almost certainly not what Shostakovich had in mind when he composed the piece, and yet it works as a framework to understand the music. More generally, the music can be felt as a long path from innocence to knowledge, youth to age, or questionable naivete to resigned wisdom.
Mr. Danel fully exploited a trick in the first movement to set these ideas in motion. The opening theme seems happy-go-lucky but with a few quirky, unexpected notes along the way that make it sound almost cartoonish or goofy by the time the entire line is heard. The quartet then circles around this theme for a while before returning to it in its original state a second time. The same thing happens and the theme is reach a third time – only this time the notes in the second half of the theme seems to deflate or curdle like sour milk.
When he got to the third restatement, Mr. Danel added almost a jazzy grace note to the first half of the theme to make the ensuing curdling effect both more pronounced and more unexpected. From there, the audience was hooked on the “all is not as it seems” sensation of the entire piece. The second movement really did start off like “rumblings of unrest” with a solo viola line of a broken E minor chord that violist Vlad Bogdanas made sound almost symphonic in the Phillips’ historic Music Room. The fully menacing third movement picked up an extra degree of drama by the Danel Quartet’s lack of inhibition in lifting their bows together to restart individual notes in the same energetic manner, rather than take the easy way out and go up and down with their bowing just as the notes came.
The memorial-sounding fourth movement returned the quartet to its lyrical side, but it was really the enigmatic fifth and final movement that showed the Danel Quartet’s long experience and thinking about Shostakovich’s music to best effect.
Little extra hesitations in the tempos along the way, obviously long thought out among the ensemble, contributed to the idea that the celebrated Shostakovich third quartet has made people think both about their own lifespans and the triumph-and-tragedy nature of the 20th century as a whole ever since it was written.
The Danel Quartet’s performance of the Weinberg quartet – likewise his third, but in 1944, as a young man recently escaped from Nazi-occupied lands – was notable for its high energy content and for one passage in particular: the opening of the second movement, which sounds a lot like the last movement of the Shostakovich quartet written two years later.
The experience was enhanced by an entertaining verbal presentation by Mr. Danel right after intermission. He explained in confident English (albeit with a heavy French accent, which made it yet more entertaining) that Weinberg had every reason to believe when he died more than 50 years later that he would be forgotten and nobody would be playing his music today. It doesn’t hurt that the Danel Quartet has recorded not only all of the Shostakovich quartets but also all of the Weinberg quartets – a big factor in the post-mortem revival of interest in Weinberg.
Quatuor Danel opened the concert with a 19th century companion piece – the String Quartet No. 6 by Felix Mendelssohn, by far the darkest of these quartets by a composer usually noted for his sunny outlook. Composed in a precious few months in 1847 between the death of Mendelssohn’s beloved sister Fanny and his own death at age 38, the first movement sounds a bit like it really should have been a symphony and could have used extra harmonies, but the second movement is a masterpiece with a dramatic first violin line over a brilliantly rising series of interlocking chords by the other three instruments.
Along with Mr. Bogdanas on viola, Gilles Millet on second violin and Yovan Markovitch on cello produced a fullness of sound with accurate intonation that can easily escape other string quartets. One thing about Quatuor Danel that may strike individual audience members as either a good or bad thing is Mr. Danel’s personal manner of almost detaching himself from the rest of the ensemble and occasionally actually facing the audience, kicking his feet up in rhythm of the phrasing the music, and audibly breathing through his nose to indicate phrasing back to his quartet-mates (something that is strikingly not edited out of their recordings, either).
Personally I prefer this bit of live performance art to the excessive mugging that all four members of some other string quartets do at one another every few measures. Other concert attendees may feel the reverse, which is fine, too. It’s all part of the choices available today as classical performers hunt for audiences worldwide. Without it, some extremely valuable music of the past century might never been heard ever again.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Quatuor Danel performed on Sunday, April 30, 2017 at 4 PM at the Phillips Collection – 1600 21st Street NW, in Washington, D.C. The Phillips Sunday concert series season concludes this week – for more information, see the Phillips Music website. For Quatuor Danel’s worldwide performance schedule, see their concert calendar.