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Today—precisely 100 years later—one would more likely detect similarities to Schönberg’s expressionist string sextet ‘Verklärte Nacht’ and hear the typical Wagnerian sound of the ‘Wesendonk-Lieder’. They were certainly adapted from his ideal of Debussy whose music—although directed against Wagner—would never have been written without the German composer. In the 19th century the whole of France was under the spell of Beethoven and Wagner. Ravel however transformed all these influences into his very personal style of mediterranean clarity and highly sophisticated eroticism. In this early string quartet which he dedicated to his teacher—‘à mon cher Maître Gabriel Fauré’—Ravel made it his task to renew the classical form of the sonata. And how he accomplished this! There are no two colliding themes in the first movement which would be combined in the development to convey the impression of progress onto a higher level. Rather one is tempted to think that the faun from L’après-midi d’un faune, composed only a few years earlier, might actually have found his nymph: Both themes intertwine harmoniously, even tenderly, and there is no conflict. And still—thanks to Ravel’s craftiness and refinement and his subtle transformations and shifts—we have, after all, reached new territory.
The swift second movement easily evokes mythological scenes fleeting, as it were, through the reeds of the vibrating tremoli and sweeping pizzicati, before the first movement’s themes are gently embedded in the trio. Obviously, Ravel very meticulously interweaves his themes which always remain fresh and surprising and are frequently presented in a different light. Here, too, 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.
It has long been Rudolf Barshai’s dream to popularize the beauty of this music and to make it accessible to a bigger circle than just the regular audience of chamber music concerts. A big concert hall provides room for many more people, but it also requires, of course, more instruments. Barshai’s wish was granted when the Scottish Ensemble commissioned him to write an instrumental version of Ravel’s string quartet. An orchestration can often highlight the riches and the abundance of the music while the composition itself, as well as the authentic text, are not changed. Thus, it is possible to render a more differentiated version of the complexity of the music.
It is well known that Ravel was himself an ingenious orchestrator. It was only after his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition that Mussorgsky’s piano piece became popular. We don’t know how the string quartet might have sounded had Ravel himself provided the instrumental version—unlike Stravinsky, Ravel never revised his own work. And this is where Rudolf Barshai enters the scene. In the second movement Ravel set himself all kinds of difficult tasks. The composer insisted on a juxtaposition of sections written in three-four and six-eight-time which were supposed to form a contrast ‘très rythmé’. In addition, we have a pentatonic motif which is now more clearly discernible. The same applies to the material from the first movement, now embedded into the lively scherzo. The chamber orchestra seems to be able to handle all this much better. Individual parts can be separated from each other (played ‘divisi’). It is the cello that profits most from this technique. Since a double bass now comes in to support the main line, more subtleties can be brought out and the great wealth of colours enhanced. These effects are particularly striking in the bass fifths of the third movement with its beautifully rhythmical figures that can now be played in two parts. The oriental mix of colours with its seductive impact is further emphasized by the double bass. The last movement is in five-eight time and sounds like an anticipation of Ravel’s most famous and sparkling score Daphnis et Chloë. Therefore, the virtuosity of the finale is rendered to its best advantage in the version for chamber orchestra.
However, the string quartet itself is not lost. Those who want to return to the purity of the original form can do so whenever they like. Surely, this was in the back of Barshai’s mind, having himself always been a ‘quartet person’ par excellence. In his college days Barshai founded a string quartet later widely known as the Borodin String Quartet. The former pupil of the Russian violin professor Lew Zeitlin even switched to viola and became one of the greatest masters of this instrument. Soon after this, Barshai founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra which performed, for the first time ever, baroque, classical and modern chamber music in Russia. With this orchestra Barshai has been touring the world successfully since the 1960s. In order to enrich the Moscow Chamber Orchestra’s repertoire he began working on his own arrangements the most significant of which may well be the completion of Bach’s Art of Fugue. More frequently performed, however, is his orchestration of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8, Op 110 (see) which immediately met with the composer’s approval. Shostakovich, himself a master of orchestration and Barshai’s composition teacher, was so pleased with his pupil’s work that he even gave his agreement to the publication of the piece under the name of Chamber Symphony Op 110a. This encouraged Rudolf Barshai to work on an arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 10, Op 118, written in 1964. To elucidate the structure of the piece, Barshai again made use of the abundant potential of the string instruments, the ‘divisi’ technique and the solos.
Shostakovich scrutinized Barshai’s work. He returned it to him with a succinct verdict: everything was ‘okay’. Those who knew the scrupulous composer must have understood immediately that this was probably the highest form of praise anybody could expect to pass his lips. How much Shostakovich really appreciated Barshai’s work became evident in 1969 when Barshai’s orchestra (for which the symphony was composed) gave the first performance of the piece.
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 1969, the ‘twin quartets’ No 9 and 10 are not exactly optimistic. The String Quartet No 10, Op 118a 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 ©
English: Marc Staudacher