Boris Tischenko - String Quartet No 5 Op 90 (1984) UK premiere
Dmitri Shostakovich - Piano Quintet Op 57
Pushkin House, London
October 30, 2012
Review by Edward Clark
Boris Tischenko was, for 50 years, a major figure in St Petersburg’s musical life. After his student years he continued studies with Shostakovich and reputedly became the great composer’s favourite pupil.
Tischenko remains little known outside of Russia, despite the accolade from Shostakovich. He has left a large legacy in a musical catalogue embracing seven symphonies, six string quartets, numerous concertos, ballets and lots of chamber/instrumental works.
It is a generous catalogue too, displaying the key elements of his musical style that he gradually developed from his early years under Khrushchev to his last period under Dmitri Medvedev. His work emanates from the tradition of Shostakovich and investigates further the idioms of parody, irony, anarchy often expressed with a sardonic smile.
Certain works, mainly in the symphonic cycle, have an epic sweep but generally Tischenko was a commentator on the human condition in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. He learnt from Shostakovich how to stay sane within an insane system and how to protect his integrity when so many others were losing theirs.
This is by way of an introduction to the UK premiere of the Fifth String Quartet, a mature work, written in 1984. It contains all the elements mentioned above within a classical model, even to the point of an exposition repeat within a sonata form first movement.
The beguiling opening melody gives way to the harshest dissonances. Contrast is very much sought throughout the whole work and, for whatever reason, he delegated the writing of the tune that begins the finale to his young son! Phrases are constantly repeated, melody is heard then obscured; there are abrupt changes in dynamics and between the highest and lowest registers of the quartet tonal spectrum. After all this deviation in mood and temperature the enigmatic, quiet ending causes puzzlement. It seems to encapsulate the composer’s desire to camouflage his sense of truth from the society around him, where hidden eyes and ears were always seeking examples of subversion.
In the same way we know little about Shostakovich’s true intentions in many of his major works, Tischenko’s art hides behind a mask of inscrutability. Many Russian artists, such as the film directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Askoldov share this quality of enigmatic meaning.
The Fifth String Quartet proclaims Tischenko as one of the most fascinating and enduring musical figures among recent Russian composers. No wonder Shostakovich came to admire him.
The successful impression left by this work was in no little due to the masterful playing of the Villiers String Quartet. Using parts supplied by the composer in 2007, the quartet gave a searing performance of a work of wide ranging contrast. Admittedly the acoustic was cramped and muddy but the ear adjusted to allow the separate stands of sound to become distinct and clear. Each player rose to his or her own challenge of interpreting music of great diversity that was, nevertheless, embraced within the composer’s carefully constructed web of collective sonority.
The second work was by the master himself. A major composition, the Piano Quintet, written in 1940, does not follow the rules handed down for such a combination from the classical and romantic eras. Opening with a long piano solo, elsewhere there are long stretches where the piano is silent. In many ways it is an awkward work because of its own idiosyncrasy; the musical challenges for sustaining a mixture of extreme astringency with almost naive simplicity are abundant in the score.
Julian Gallant and the Villiers String Quartet rose to these tasks with a wide ranging employment of skill and understanding. The thundering third movement scherzo duly delivered its intended mark and the other, outer movements were held together with poise and refinement.
Today’s audiences have learnt that the heart of Shostakovich’s achievement may well lie in his chamber music. His reaction to the hurt and suffering he endured throughout his life is superbly captured in these intimate, powerful works, not least in this great piano quintet.