Surely, Lesser does make a good point in the final pages of her book when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet. In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this creates can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously). And this (and not Stalinism) is why the silence at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning: it is filled with reflection: our minds are busy digesting: only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in. Ovation always seems to come too early, interrupting reflection — and this is why we should all welcome Borodin Quartet’s brilliant invention to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, leaving us, the audience, alone with our thoughts.
I praise Lesser less enthusiastically for her discussion of silence in Shostakovich string quartets: she didn’t have enough material there for 11 paragraphs (four pages!). This is understandable, neither do I — nor, perhaps, does anyone; but the way to deal with that was, surely, not to go on and on and on extemporising? Is it not a sin for a writer to write more words than it takes to say what he has to say? Does it not disqualify a writer to write passages which sound rhetorically beautiful but mean — nothing? Is it not a sin to waste one’s readers’ time? Are they not mortal? Is their time here not limited? Is every second lost not more precious than gold? Is time lost ever found again?
I do not know by what miracle they came to do this in Lisbon — their concert schedule does not show the full cycle anywhere; mostly, for the anglos, they play Shostakovich 7 and 8, which is rather predictable; and even in ambitious Paris they only dared two days of Shostakovich back to back. But here, in Lisbon, they played the whole thing, all fifteen of them, in chronological progression, in a kind of staccato program: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday, Monday.
Predictably, the large hall was more than 2/3s empty; interestingly, perhaps a quarter of the audience were foreigners, though I cannot tell whether anyone had flown in especially for the gig. It was a good audience, if somewhat tuberculotic (it is still summer here, what can possibly be the excuse for all this pulmonary obstruction?): we all stuck out with the whole cycle. Turning around I kept seeing focused faces, young girls listening intently with their eyes wide shut.
For me, the payoff was huge: I have always found listening to the string quartets a little hard going; but doing it this way — seeing it live, then going home to listen again to what I have just heard, somehow cleared the path through the mental thicket; every concert brought clarity and wonderment. I have found all of them accessible — all, that is, except for Nos. 10, 11 and 12, working through which was like clambering up New Guinea’s coastal range, through jungle, mud, and bugs, to arrive at last at in the rarefied, delicious air of the strangely beautiful upland of No. 13. Ah, the beauty of No. 13: I was literally struck dumb. Seeing me stupefied and holding my hand to my lips throughout the break, my escort laughed at me.
Like Haydn’s, Shostak’s string quartets are beautiful without being the least bit schmaltzy; unlike Haydn’s, they are introspective. By and large they are free of the ironic note so prevalent in his symphonies; discord — and there is a fair bit — isn’t sarcastic, it is thoughtful — the composer speaking not to an undifferentiated, presumably dumb crowd, but intimately, to his equals. Structurally they are classical, but thematically, they represent a kind of new continent with unknown plants and animals. Hearing them all this way gives one an impression of a kind of arc from the positively pixish No. 1 to the utter sadness of No. 15. (Shostakovich: “Tomorrow I will be 62. People at that age love to act coquettish in response to the question: ‘if you had it to do all over again would you live your 62 years as you have?” ‘Yes, certainly there were failures, there were hardships but, on the whole, I would live these 62 years just the same.’ But if that question were to be put to me, I would respond: ‘No, a thousand times no!'”).
The Borodin String Quartet make very beautiful sound. And, as if any heightening of emotions were necessary, they play No. 15, composed in the year of Shostak’s death, in candle-light; then blow out the candles and walk out without taking a bow. It does not feel like showmanship: we all understand it instantly: it is a special homage to the man’s memory and we observe a minute of silence.
This was by far my most exciting and enriching concert-going experience of the entire year; indeed, in several years. It felt absolutely miraculous. If they do it again, I will fly to wherever they do it to be there again.