CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Friday, April 27, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Pavel Haas Quartet

Weill Recital Hall
The Pavel Haas Quartet culminates a vigorous two-week tour of the United States with an evening of works by Russian and Czech masters at Carnegie Hall. The program includes Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, “From My Life,” which the composer called, “a tone picture of my life, my youthful leanings toward art and the Romantic atmosphere.”
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The Program

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11

About the Composer


Like a number of other Russian composers, Tchaikovsky began his career as a low-level civil servant, working as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg. Not until age 23 did he find his true vocation and enroll as a full-time student at the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory. Upon graduating, he moved to Moscow to teach at the sister school founded by pianist and conductor Nikolai Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky's extensive academic training and cosmopolitan outlook eventually put him at odds with Russian nationalists like Borodin, Balakirev, and Mussorgsky. But he shared their deep interest in Russian history and culture, as illustrated by works like the operas Vakula the Smith and Eugene Onegin, the Second Symphony ("Little Russian"), the Slavonic March, and dozens of art songs.


About the Work


Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet, composed in 1871, is a case in point: Its transcendently beautiful slow movement is based on a Ukrainian folk tune that he had jotted down while visiting his sister and her husband at their country estate two years earlier. (The Andante cantabile would become enormously popular as a standalone piece; Tchaikovsky himself made an arrangement for cello and orchestra in the late 1880s.) The D-Major Quartet was the centerpiece of a benefit concert devoted to Tchaikovsky's music held at the Moscow Conservatory that March. The work's success gave a fillip to the composer's growing reputation and helped ensure that it would gain a secure place in the standard quartet repertoire.


A Closer Listen


The opening Moderato e semplice—with its plush, velvety sonorities and dramatic modulations—reminds us that Tchaikovsky was a symphonist at heart. It features a warm, gently pulsating theme whose distinctive syncopated rhythmic pattern lends itself to expansion and development on a broad scale. The Andante cantabile, by contrast, is intimacy itself. Tchaikovsky milks the bittersweet B-flat-major folk tune for all it's worth, then pivots on the second violin's repeated Fs to an equally beguiling melody of his own, in D-flat, accompanied by hypnotically repeating pizzicato notes in the cello. More surprises lie in store in the vigorous, dancelike Scherzo; listen for the three superimposed metric patterns in the middle trio section. The rousing Finale opens outward from a compact three-note motif (short-short-long), announcing a gracefully arching theme that migrates from one voice to another, now in artful disguise, now in playful canon.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH
String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108

About the Composer


Few composers have been as rudely buffeted by the winds of political fortune as Shostakovich. From the time his music first incurred official censure for its bourgeois "formalism" in the early 1930s, the highly strung composer played an elaborate game of feint and attack with the Soviet regime, cannily balancing his more abrasive, cutting-edge music with a stream of reassuringly patriotic and artistically conservative works. In the thaw that followed Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich reached a precarious entente with his political masters, who needed his support nearly as much as he needed theirs. He traveled abroad, established contact with Benjamin Britten and other Western composers, and achieved performances of works that had long been suppressed. With acute misgivings, he also accepted a number of official posts, becoming secretary of the state-run composers' union and belatedly joining the Communist Party.


About the Work


The seventh of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets falls squarely in the thick of this emotionally turbulent period in his life. Chronologically, it falls between two of his most blatantly sycophantic works, the 11th and 12th symphonies of 1957 and 1961, respectively, both commemorating events associated with the Russian Revolution. Such monumental "official" productions are probably best seen as opportunistic attempts to curry favor in high places. At the same time, following his established pattern, Shostakovich withdrew from the public sphere and plumbed new expressive depths in a series of brooding, hermetic works that departed radically from the sterile dogmas of socialist realism. A series of personal tragedies, coupled with declining health, may have reinforced the introspective frame of mind that is evident in the Seventh and Eighth quartets, both composed in 1960.


A Closer Listen


Dedicated to the composer's first wife Nina, who died of cancer in 1954, the Seventh Quartet is notably brief, elliptical, and enigmatic. There is little trace of the dark lyricism or autobiographical intensity of the Eighth Quartet, written a few months later. Instead, Shostakovich seems determined to keep the listener at an ironic distance. But the gaiety is forced and fleeting: The first violin's looping melody at the beginning plummets groundward like a falling kite, and when the cello picks up the thread a few bars later, its brisk, march-like tune circles back on itself without taking flight. The whole quartet is full of strangeness: the shrill, piercing accents that disrupt the delicate pizzicato tread of the opening Allegretto's midsection; the muted, mirthless cantilena and semitonal slitherings of the ghostly Lento; the disjointed waltz that follows hard on the heels of a savage fugue in the final Allegro. Strangest of all, perhaps, are the hushed F-sharp-minor chords that close the first and last movements, suggesting neither resolution nor peace, but the stillness of death.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

BEDŘICH SMETANA
String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, "From My Life"

About the Composer


Together with Dvořák, Smetana was the public voice of Czech nationalism in the last decades of the 19th century. The son of a prosperous brewer in rural Bohemia, he gravitated toward cosmopolitan Prague as a young man and took part in the abortive uprising of 1848 against the Austrian Habsburgs. With the support of Liszt, he began to build a reputation at home and abroad; the production of his opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia in 1866 brought him his first taste of real fame. It was quickly followed by The Bartered Bride, a sun-drenched comedy that put Czech opera on the international map. The early 1870s marked the onset of the syphilis-induced deafness that would plague the composer for the rest of his life. Smetana bravely soldiered on, completing his cycle of symphonic tone poems Má vlast (My Country) and his patriotic opera Libuše, which inaugurated Prague's National Theater in 1881. By the time he died in a lunatic asylum three years later, he was honored as a founding father of Czech music.


About the Work


Smetana wrote the first of his two quartets under trying circumstances. By late 1876, the persistent buzzing in his ear prevented him from working for more than an hour at a stretch. Moreover, the ensemble for which the work was intended refused to perform it, declaring the polka movement unplayable. (The unofficial premiere finally took place at a friend's house in 1878, with Dvořák playing the viola.) Hoping to facilitate the quartet's reception, Smetana attached a programmatic subtitle, "From My Life." He explained that the first movement expressed the "romantic spirit" of his early years, tinged with premonitions of deafness. The second movement recalled "the cheerful time of my youth in which I composed dance pieces that I presented copiously to all my acquaintances and was known as a passionate dancer in my own right." The third movement was imbued with "the happiness of my first love," while the fourth marked his "discovery of the essence of national music and my joy in following this path up to the moment when it was brutally interrupted by the ominous calamity."


A Closer Listen


In the Allegro vivo appassionato, the viola's dramatically charged, foreboding theme is set against a restless undercurrent of undulating eighth notes. This gives way to a tenderly lyrical countersubject; the ensuing struggle between the two ideas ends in a draw when the first violin combines them in the final bars. The Allegro moderato alla Polka is all boyish insouciance, with its foot-stomping rhythms, off-kilter accents, jerky hesitations, and whimsical imitations of a wheezy harmonium. The searing intensity of the Largo sostenuto is accentuated by the warm key of A-flat major. The final Vivace dashes off in a blaze of E major; not until the dust settles do we hear the rollicking folk-like tune that Smetana posited as "the essence of national music." Instead of the expected happy conclusion, however, the high spirits dissolve into shuddering tremolos, the first violin emits a screeching high E, themes from the first movement return in fragmentary form, and silence engulfs us.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is made possible, in part, by the A.L. and Jennie L. Luria Foundation.
Duff and Phelps 115 x
The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.
Macy's 95x
This Carnegie Hall Live broadcast is supported by Macy's.

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