The Stuyvesant Quartet = SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Quintet, Op. 57; BLOCH: String Quartet No. 1 – Vivian Rivkin, piano/Stuyvesant String Quartet
Historic-Recordings HRCD00014, 75:00 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] ****:
Considering that Shostakovich and the Beethoven String Quartet premiered his Op. 57 Quintet in 1940, we must admire the speed with which the Stuyvesant Quartet–Sylvan Shulman and Harry Glickman, violin; Louis Kievman, viola; Alan Shulman, cello–made their inscription, 7-8 May 1941. The Prelude (Lento) sets a pattern that repeats in each successive movement, in various guises and textures. The Scherzo movement might have provided Leonard Bernstein for the motif for “Wonderful Town.” A sardonic klezmer humor infiltrates the proceedings, hasty, irreverent, and relentless. A lovely violin solo sings over a plucked bass to open the Intermezzo (Lento), the keyboard no less diaphanous. The violin establishes a high pedal as the keyboard takes us down a modal scale. A classical poise, emotionally restrained but deeply tragic suffuses this marvelous movement. The dynamics diminish softly, poignantly, a bleak orison indeed. The last movement, Allegretto, attempts to provide frisky consolation in the manner of the Piano Concerto, Op. 35. Like the second movement, the Finale employs fugal motifs, and so imposes a Baroque grandeur on the rather solemn sensibilities that poignantly appear.
Ernest Bloch wrote his epic String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor in Geneva, 1916, likely a spiritual commentary on the state of the war-torn planet. The Stuyvesant Quartet inscription derives from sessions around 10 October 1939–the eve of another world cataclysm–and involve one personnel change: Zelly Smirnoff plays second violin. The lyrically haunted atmosphere of the first movement alternates between subdued passion and dreamy agitation. The concertante character of the first violin part becomes quite forceful. The dark Scherzo, Allegro frenetic, combines a vigor from Beethoven with an other-worldly sound that owes a nod to Debussy. The haunted calm episodes provide little relief, as violin and viola commiserate with each other. We have entered a vale of tears. Light tremolos under a repeated figure lead us by chromatic paths to an anguished cantilena. The da capo proves blatantly feverish; a fitful ague seizes the already inflamed materials.
Bloch labels his third movement a Pastorale, but its vision of Nature seems hazy, sad, even miasmic. The middle section does indeed achieve major harmonies and an agitated dance of some lightness. The requiem returns, a slow dirge hinting at light in broken spaces. Though the Finale is marked Vivace, it begins lugubriously, until the through-composed motif from earlier movements asserts itself, gloomily, for two minutes. Then a contrapuntal ferocity unleashes, a febrile moto perpetuo that sidles–maybe purrs grudgingly–like a cat from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. A weird hexentanz erupts, the first violin dominant. The entire concept, driven, angular, conforms to the Neue Sachlichkeit sensibility that Hindemith championed. A terrible yearning for humanity emerges near the end, the glimmer of hope in Dorian Gray’s corrupted eyes. The repeated knocking at the gate–is it Fate or the mocking cynicism of Macbeth’s Porter? For those who purchased this album back in its 78rpm format, this had to be a daring, daunting enterprise.