Being a Jew under the Soviet Union regime was not easy; expressing sympathy for the Jews and openly showing support for them could be a death wish. Though not Jewish himself by birth, Dmitri Shostakovich fell into the category of non-Jews who risked what they had by showing sympathy for the Jews. His interest in Jewish music led him to incorporate Jewish themes into the music he composed, as well as songs that were meant to represent the hardships that Jews endured in the anti-Semitic climate of the Soviet Union. These sympathies came to the attention of Stalin and his government, causing problems for Shostakovich throughout his life.
The ultimate expression of Shostakovich’s sympathy for the Jews came well after Stalin’s death, when he composed his Thirteenth Symphony (Babi Yar), setting to music Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems about the Babi Yar massacre during the Holocaust.
In addition to his orchestral works and other creative output, Shostakovich composed 15 string quartets, touching pieces that reflected on life in Soviet Russia. Last month, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center hosted the Jerusalem Quartet as they performed four concerts in Alice Tully Hall covering the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets.
The Jerusalem Quartet, which is composed entirely of Russian musicians – three of whom were born in the Soviet Union – seems to be a particularly appropriate group for the performance of these quartets. Through the talents of the Quartet’s members, Alexander Pavlovsky (first violin), Sergei Bresler (second violin), Ori Kam (viola), and Kyril Zlotnikov (cello), Shostakovich’s quartets seem to come alive, pulsating with energy and transporting the audience back to Shostakovich’s world.
Each concert displayed quartets spanning Shostakovich’s career, from the 1930s to the 1970s, allowing the audience a look at his growth as a composer and at the themes that dominated his life. The first concert on March 17th, which I was fortunate to attend, featured Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49 from 1983; Quartet No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 92 from 1952; Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 from 1956; and Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major, Op. 133 from 1968.
The concert’s intimate setting enhanced the connection between the audience and the four musicians onstage, whose performance was precise and well-executed while still retaining a certain playfulness, almost like a dance. The two violinists’ movements were elaborately dramatic and in sync, making them a joy to watch as well as to hear. Their perfect combination of meticulousness and skill with their demonstrative enthusiasm displayed an emotional connection with the music that engaged the audience and brought them along on the music’s poignant journey.
The pre-concert lecture with Michael Parloff, which was repeated post-concert for the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program of Stern College for Women, focused on the themes contained within Shostakovich’s music, elaborating on the music that we had already had the pleasure of hearing live. Parloff, who is the former Principal Flutist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, took us through Shostakovich’s quartets, pointing out the connections between his music and his personal life and helping us better understand the man behind the music.