Keats is never far from my thoughts, but appeared unprompted and powerfully on Friday evening. Because Autumn’s music in Leamington Spa was provided by the Fitzwilliam Quartet and, in the Mozart Quintet, Sophie Renshaw as second viola.
The programme was changed at the last minute, the death of first violin Lucy Russell’s father meaning that there was insufficient time for rehearsals of the Bruckner Quintet. So I still haven’t seen or heard this (apparently) complex piece.
But what a treat we had instead. The Fitzbillies dug into a half-century of repertoire to present us with one of the most startling quartets of our time.
Reader, we were given Shostakovich’s Opus 138, the Quartet #13 in B flat minor.
The Fitzbilly and Shostakovich have form. The European première of the Opus 138 was given by them. The second ever performance, a few days later, was also given by them, and this time with Shostakovich himself in the audience. It was the beginning of what Shostakovich called a “musical friendship”, and Benjamin Britten reported that Shostakovich had told him that the Fitzwilliam was his “preferred performers of my quartets”.
I am indebted to the excellent programme notes of Richard Phillips MBE for this stuff; I didn’t know before the Friday interval.
What I did know was that Shostakovich’s 13th quartet is a segue from the second movement of the 12th, a performance of which – by the Kodaly – was the last time I heard a Shostakovich played in the Regency grandeur of the Leamington Pump Rooms. In this sense, the experience was akin to hearing the Dead playing a single gig on several successive nights up the East Coast in the ‘70s. But even the Dead never got close to the ferocious atonal screaming of the central section of this dark and scary quartet. Nor did the Dead ever create anything so soulful as those final bars from the viola, climbing higher and higher into silence.
It’s less than 20 minutes long. But, played by this quartet, it’s better than any Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven you ever heard.
Yes, yes, yes. It’s all part of my autumn almanac.
Today from the everysmith vaults: This morning it was the Emerson and the Kodaly versions of #13. This afternoon, I’m returning to More Blood, More Tracks. One could argue that they are as one in their inspiration and theme. But I won't.