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Classical Review: St. Petersburg Quartet Offers Extraordinary Repertoire

Program Delights with Mozart, Shostakovich, and Dvorak

By Rosa Cao

St. Petersburg String Quartet

Marcus Thompson, viola

Sept. 30, 2005

MIT Kresge Auditorium

A large audience gathered in Kresge Auditorium on Friday night for a beautiful performance by the St. Petersburg String Quartet, kicking off the 2005-2006 MIT Guest Artist Series. In honor of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the series presents concert violist and MIT Professor Marcus Thompson playing a Mozart viola quintet with each of the visiting groups.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Quintet in B♭ major, his first quintet with two violas, written when he was 17. From the beginning, it was clear that this group is special even among the world’s premier chamber groups. The musicians display not only extraordinary individual quality, but also an unusual unity of musical vision for the piece. This was exemplified in their execution of the third movement, a minuet they imbued with a rare physical feeling of movement and dance.

The performers sat in a semi-circle, with Alla Aranovskaya (violin) and Leonid Shukayev (cello) at the ends. Both graduates of the Leningrad Conservatory, these two musicians anchored the crescent with expressive flourishes both musical and physical. Shukayev in particular seemed dance as much as play his cello, surging up from his seat and leaning down along his cello’s neck in perfect timing with his bow. Boris Vayner (viola) steadied the center with broad strokes, while Thompson (viola) and David Chernyavskey (second violin) provided intensity in relative stillness, Thompson the perfectly well-mannered guest integrating seamlessly into the group.

The emotional core of the program came with the Shostakovich, whose haunting Quartet No. 8 in C minor, “dedicated to the victims of fascism and war,” was given its full due by the Russian quartet. The symmetries in the piece verged on the profound, from the hitching sob of individual grief in the violin in the first movement, building urgently to a sense of disaster, to the shrillness in the violin supported by an insistent, ever more frantic alarm in the cello. The largeness and drama in the third movement winds down by the last movement to a decrescendo so smooth it seemed to last forever.

After the intermission, Dvorak’s “American” Quartet in F Major in the second half could not help but seem a little mundane. The performers wrung every bit of emotion possible out of the piece, but it was hard to return to pastoral simplicity from the heights of Shostakovich and Mozart. The audience was pleased, however, judging from the rousing standing ovation at the end.

The quartet, refreshingly uncoy, strode back on-stage for an immediate encore: the enthusiastic second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, full of pizzicato and pizzazz. The group clearly shared Ravel’s enjoyment in this playful movement; they executed the dynamic interaction among the instruments with sparkling ease. The first violinist took the opportunity to dazzle with solos exuberant enough to match her glittery top, and the concert whisked itself off to a close.

If you were there, pat yourself on the back for a Friday night well spent; and if not, don’t worry, the next concert in this series will be on Oct. 28, featuring the Endellion String Quartet. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other free music events coming up, from the MIT Faculty Series to the MIT Affiliated Artist Series. This information may be found on the Department of Music and Theater Arts Web site (http://web/mta/www/music/index.html).