Borodin: String Quartet No 2 in D Major
Shostakovich: String Quartet No 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92
On Friday night I was back at the Library of Congress for yet another Mendelssohn celebration, featuring this time the Atrium Quartet, straight from Saint Petersburg, Russia, with some love hopefully, but plenty of talent for sure. Playing on some instruments from the Library's collection, which are getting quite a workout these days, they presented a decidedly international program including, beside the predictable Mendelssohn piece, Borodin's soulful Quartet No 2, a decisive factor in my decision to attend, and their fellow countryman Shostakovich.
Unlike most of his oeuvre and sharply contrasting with one of his first compositions, the exuberantly sunny Octet, Mendelssohn's final quartet, written after his beloved sister's sudden death, forcefully expresses feelings of torment and loss with unusual dissonance. Even the Andante is conspicuously dark and unquiet while occasionally eluding to happy memories. The four young musicians did not hesitate to get right into it and brilliantly brought out the full range of the composer's agitated state of mind.
After so much turbulence and grief, Borodin's Quartet No 2 rose like bright sunshine. A gift to his wife for their 20th anniversary, it bristles with lyrical romanticism, and on Friday night the strikingly luminous, deeply heart-felt Notturno was absolutely stunning, the somber cello providing the perfect counterpoint to the passionately expressive violin. After such an elating movement, the vivacious Finale almost seemed too fast and furious, but eventually concluded the whole piece with panache.
It is probably a safe bet to assume that Shostakovich has a particular resonance for Russian musicians, and hearing the Atrium Quartet tear through his String Quartet No 5 all but reinforced that notion. Of ambitious scope and gloomy mood, the three movements are supposed to be performed without a pause and are remarkably distinct from one another. Amidst all the restless anguish, the Andante rose with delicate poignancy, and we could only praise the ensemble's last-minute decision to change the order of the program. Hearing Mendelssohn and Shostakovich back to back would have probably been too much to digest.
Since the enthusiastic audience of the packed auditorium wouldn't let them go, they came back for a short, soulful piece by Shostakovich again, a quietly beautiful way to wrap up the evening. Friday the 13th has never felt so lucky.