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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Album review: Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc captures essence of Dmitri Shostakovich string quartets

By John Terauds on January 24, 2014

QAL

In her 13-year-old biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, Laurel Fay describes the composer’s instructions for his last string quartet: “Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.”

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

How’s that for an interpretive challenge?

Québec City-based, Moncton-born Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc has bravely, unflinchingly picked up the gauntlet, not only with String Quartet No. 15, written in 1974, just a few months before the composer’s death, but with the previous 14, as well.

quartetsTheir six-CD effort, released recently by Montreal label XXI-21, is a powerful example of committed artists bringing difficult music to vivid life.

Shostakovich’s 15 quartets have become a touchstone for many younger chamber musicians, and favourites for many fans of serious listening.

Like his symphonies, the quartets defy being turned into aural wallpaper; you either need to listen, or to turn the music off; you either need to engage and watch the insects drop out of the air in mid-flight, or flee the concert hall.

But for all of its intensity, Shostakovich’s music isn’t complex. His musical ideas are crystal clear. His humour is full of the cynical and the ironic, which probably sits well with anyone who has spent even a small amount of time wincing at the antics of, say Toronto’s current mayor.

And, just as the music compels the listener, it puts pressure on the interpreter: It is improbable, if not impossible, to play a piece of music by Shostakovich half-heartedly. The interpreter will either reject it or allow herself or himself to get swallowed up by the music.

That’s why there have been, and continue to be, so many fine interpretations.

The Arthur-Leblanc’s journey — impeccably played, finely balanced, charged with intensity — allowed me to spend time with No. 15. It’s the longest. At 37 minutes, it isn’t really long enough to command its own CD, but that’s how these musicians have arranged it.

It’s an extended roll in some pretty bleak emotional muck; the ultimate challenge to first violinists Hibiki Kobayashi and Brett Molzan, violist Jean-Luc Plourde. And then there are the extended laments handed by the composer to cellist Ryan Molzan. Rather than impelling us to reach for the Stop button, the sustained intensity of the playing becomes an impossible-to-escape tractor beam.

The most popular of the Shostakovich quartets, No. 8, from 1960, starts off quietly enough, but that’s just so this able foursome can marshal their forces for the onslaught to come as the first movement topples into the next.

I’m not always a fan of complete sets of works, but because Shostakovich had intended to write a cycle of quartets in all of the major and minor keys, just like he did with his Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano, being able to appreciate all of the string quartets together allows the listener to compare and contrast a bigger picture with the more detailed view of each work.

The printed booklet contains virtually no information at all, but the box includes a seventh CD with notes as PDF files.

Whether you are a connoisseur or not, this box of bittersweet chocolates is a keeper.

You can find out more about the Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc — the quartet in residence at the Université de Laval — and their discography here.

John Terauds

 

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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