Coming up: Quartets à la russe


Sunday afternoon at Smith College, the St. Petersburg Quartet will perform a program of Shostakovich (Quartet No. 4), Tchaikovsky (Quartet No. 3) and Bach (their violist Boris Vayner’s arrangement of the Chaconne in D minor), presented by Music In Deerfield and the Smith Music Department.  Pre-game at 3:00, with yours truly and members of the “St. Petes,” and concert at 4:00.  Click here for tickets and information.  Here’s what I wrote for the program booklet:

“We Western musicians play Russian music like we think it’s great.  Russian musician play it like they know it’s great.”

The late violinist, violist and Smith College professor Philipp Naegele said that to me during one of the many times we discussed music over coffee at the Amherst Starbucks.  He was reacting to a Russian performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity he had just heard on my WFCR classical show.  And this afternoon, you are about to hear what Philipp meant.

Of course, the immortal Russian composers, such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, are beloved and performed wherever classical music thrives.  To paraphrase the old Levy’s Jewish Rye commercial, you don’t have to be Russian to play Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3.  But it makes a difference if you are.  Let me focus on one example from today’s program.

Tchaikovsky composed his Quartet No. 3 in 1876 as a memorial to Ferdinand Laub, the distinguished violinist who had played in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets.  The 3rd Quartet’s third movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most personal creations, recreates in music an actual Russian funeral service, complete with funeral march, tolling bells, the priest’s intonations and the chants of the choir.  I won’t spoil the effect at the end of the movement, but its intent should be clear to all.

Of course, any quartet from any background who plays the 3rd would know this and apply it to their performances.  But if you’ve grown up with the sounds Tchaikovsky is trying to capture, and understand the music’s meaning not as something you’ve learned but as something you’ve lived, something you know – well, you’ll hear it.  The first time I heard Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Quartet played by the St. Petersburg, many years ago at Mohawk Trail Concerts, I could swear I levitated a millimeter or two during the third movement.  Your altitude may vary, but stay loose.

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