Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet opens with a raw expression of tortured emotion. As a piece of drama played out by five musicians, it’s a bold declamatory statement that draws the listener in within seconds of it starting.
That in itself would be enough, but position in the cavernous interior of Verbier’s Salle des Combins, the sense of drama was intensified.
The acoustic qualities of the venue are demonstrated best in solo or chamber works. The temporary structure gives the impression that the sound quality will be a little duff, but by ensuring the musicians on stage are surrounded by hard surfaces, and the auditorium lined by thick black curtains, an almost radio broadcast quality is created.
Attention is focussed on the stage not only by the playing, but also because the only light in the blackened auditorium is shone on stage.
The effects of this attention were demonstrated by the other contributors to the performance – the audience. I know of no other concert venue where the audience listen so attentively. There is no interruption between movements for applause, fidgeting, or battling the effects of consumption. The spell is never broken. We all enter into this listening experience together, performers and audience alike.
That kind of listening makes following the narrative in an unfamiliar work not only easier but enjoyable.
Take the opening movement of the piano quintet. Shostakovich contrasts that tortured opening subject with a gentler musical idea passed from violins, to viola, cello and piano. When the main theme returns towards the end of the first movement, its hard edges have been softened slightly.
This might appear as though I’m contradicting what I’m saying about how we need to talk about classical music differently. I’m not. Honest.
It was because of the remarkable musicianship on stage – Janine Jansen, Vadim Repin, viola Maxim Rysanov, and cellist Mischa Maisky – that the narrative of the work and Shostakovich’s mastery was immediately apparent, and listening to it a tantalising prospect.
This was muscular playing that made all manner of extreme demands on the players – pitch, dynamics, and musical expression. A joyous sense of abandon embedded in a maniacal twisted dance in the third movement, and a lump in the throat solo for the first violin in the fourth. The final movement contained remarkable contrasts of colour, before drawing to a exquisitely discreet end.
This was theatrical chamber music brought to life by a remarkable collection of players.
Performers: Vadim Repin (violin), Janine Jansen (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Mischa Maisky (cello), Lukas Geniusas (piano)
Pictures: Aline Paley / Verbier Festival 2017
Watch Shostakovich Piano Quintet Op.57 from Verbier on Medici.TV