Exploring Shostakovich



Over more than a quarter-of-a-century, the weekends devoted to the complete string quartets of various composers have become legendary, Jennie McGregor-Smith and Jim Page attracting to Bromsgrove music-lovers from all over the country keen to hear both the music and to benefit from the knowledge of a range of expert speakers.
This year's focus was on the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, a genre to which the troubled Soviet composer came long after he was well embarked on his series of 15 symphonies, after which the two catalogues ran parallel for the rest of his life.
The performers were the popular and engaging Dante Quartet (this their debut in the cycle), tight in ensemble, beautifully-balanced and clearly-textured, always empathetic in their capturing of the music's many moods, some of them seeming to emerge from the subconscious. And it was a nice touch when leader Krysia Osostowicz swapped seats with second violinist Oscar Perks, bringing a subtle change of perspective in voice-leading.
The talks complementing the music were led off brilliantly by David Nice, standing in for the indisposed Stephen Johnson at the very last minute, and creating a context fully revealing of Shostakovich's creative personality. The irrepressible enthusiasm of some of the other speakers occasionally led to time-keeping problems for the army of volunteers manning the excellent catering activities and generally helping out with the logistics, but none of this packed audience seemed to mind.
We learned much about the composer's fingerprints, his rhythmic hallmarks, his tics of articulation, his recourse to both folk and liturgical styles. More of a downside for me was the often wall-to-wall pessimism of these highly personal works, but that was my problem.
Jennie and Jim keep threatening that every quartet cycle will be their last, so I'd like to put in an early plea for just one more: the six string quartets Mozart dedicated to his great friend and colleague Haydn, every one so different in character.
Christopher Morley

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